“Begonias, and… petunias, and… um, impatiens and things”
Technically speaking this is a re-re-review of London Road, which has made a belated transfer from the Cottesloe to the considerably larger Olivier at the National Theatre, as it is the third time that I’ve seen it. I saw it when it first opened and was blown away by its inventiveness and genuine originality as a piece of musical theatre, and then made a return trip when the show extended its initial run, a visit which coincided with the summer riots here in the UK last year, a time which magnified one of the key messages of the show, of the importance of community. The decision to remount this award-winning and critically acclaimed show, even after a considerable gap of nearly a year, may have seemed like a no-brainer but for those who were able to catch it in the Cottesloe like me, I suspect there may be a little disappointment as something of the magic has been lost in the move.
A strong element to this could well be my own snobbery. As the ticket purchasing was up to someone for once, I ended up in the circle – for the first time in years! – and whilst it wasn’t as bad as I had first feared, the distance does make it a completely different theatrical experience. And ‘experience’ is the right word, for this is such a unique show in its hybrid of verbatim theatre, which replicates the speech patterns and intonations of interviewees, and freestyling atonal music, which forms an additional structure and texture as it layers, repeats and counterpoints the speech into something strangely hypnotic and beautiful.
Because the tone of the show is so conversational, it suited the intimacy of the Cottesloe like a glove and the performances maintained a level of restraint that felt completely appropriate. But re-sited onto the Olivier’s vast revolving drum, there’s been a necessary element of scaling up which ends up robbing much of the nuanced subtlety from the show. For me, the production looked a little lost on the stage, the Lyttelton would surely have been a much better fit, and as others have pointed out, the opened-out space removes much of the sense of claustrophobic menace that was so key to building the correct atmosphere. What originally provoked shocked laughter feels too broadly comic here; what felt so powerfully real has become something more theatrical.
Maybe it would have been all fine from the stalls, maybe I should have just left it at having seen it twice, who knows. London Road still remains a mightily original piece of theatre that shouldn’t be missed, and performed excellently by a cast – all but two are the originals, Linzi Hateley and James Doherty the newcomers here, both fitting in well – who remain sympathetic to the sensitivities of playing such horrific and recent real-life events. Kate Fleetwood and Nick Holder probably edge the honours, but Clare Burt, Nicola Sloane and Paul Thornley run them close, indeed the whole ensemble do. I’ve talked myself back around to liking it again now. Just book.