The theatrical production of London Road was a major success for the National Theatre, the opening run first extending in the Cottesloe and then being rewarded with a later transfer to the much larger Olivier – I was first blownaway by its originality and then later comforted by its message in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. So the news that director Rufus Norris was making a film adaptation was received with apprehensive anticipation, could this strikingly experimental piece of theatre possibly work on screen.
Writer Alecky Blythe uses a technique whereby she records interviews with people which are then edited into a play but spoken verbatim by the actors, complete with all the ums and aahs and repetitions of natural speech. And in 2006, she went to Ipswich to interview a community rocked by a series of murders, of five women in total, all sex workers, and set about telling a story not of salacious deaths but of a community learning to cleave together in trying times. Oh, and it’s all set to the most innovative of musical scores by Adam Cork, elevating ordinary speech into something quite extraordinary.
The material has been considerably reshaped for the screen – Moira Buffini assisting as script consultant – resulting in a much more straight-forward narrative through-line than was seen on stage. This linear development is reflected in Danny Cohen’s cinematography which tracks the wintry gloom of the beginning into the verdant bloom of the climax with a real visual grace. Straightening out the storytelling reduces the theatricality of the presentation too, making this feel much more like a piece of documentary realism.
Where the stage show had a cast of eleven each playing a resident and multiple other roles, each character is played by someone different here, meaning the focus is teased out a little from the tight circle of the London Road residents and their outrage about their street turning into a red light district, to give a more fully realised sense of the wider community. They consequently get more of their own voice heard – the nervy teenagers suspecting everyone around them, the sex workers shaken up by the attacks on their own, the journalists tiptoeing around the sensitivity of the issue whilst always on the lookout for a scoop.
The experience of the residents does remain central to the film though, Blythe digging back into her archive of interviews to find ways of ensuring at least of them appears in every scene and Cork rejigging the score where necessary too. And this is where the writing is at its strongest, in always showing the complexity of the collective response. Though the story moves towards a happy(ish) ending with the London Road in Bloom street party as the culmination of their efforts, there’s no pretence that a solution to the inherent problems has been found, they’ve just been moved away from their doorstep.
This ambiguity comes across particularly well in characters like Olivia Colman’s Julie and Nick Holder’s Ron, barely apologetic in their unspeakable thoughts yet rooted in small-town authenticity. Paul Thornley’s inscrutable Dodge, Linzi Hateley’s pragmatic Helen and Clare Burt’s dithering Sue remain a delight, Anita Dobson is daffily wonderful as June, Michael Shaeffer and Rosalie Craig’s journalists both stand out and the original Julie, Kate Fleetwood, plays the new role of Vicky, a haunting figure representing the spirit and presence of the working girls, both alive and dead.
And delving a little deeper, clever little touches abound in the production. The two schoolgirls singing ‘It Could Be Him’ (see clip below) are the daughters of Burt (Eloise Laurence) and Hateley (Meg Hateley Suddaby); Blythe and Cork both get cameos as a newsreader and a pianist respectively; and the final street party mixes real residents of both the real London Road in Ipswich and the fictional one in Bexley in with an ensemble that folds in any number of faces that seasoned theatregoers might recognise.
Elements of choreography by Javier De Frutos are used sparingly but most effectively to sprinkle pathos or humour into sequences as required, David Shrubsole’s sharp musical direction keeps the singing (nearly all done live) on point, and Norris’ direction constantly takes on inventive new directions to expertly but sensitively reshape the material for this new medium. I can’t imagine what it would be like to come to this film without prior experience of the show (and I’d be fascinated to hear from you if that’s you) but as a fan, it is undoubtedly a beautiful extension to one of the most innovative musical theatre experiences of the last decade.
Full cast list
Julie – Olivia Colman
Sue – Clare Burt
Kelly McCormack – Rosalie Craig
June – Anita Dobson
Seb – James Doherty
Vicky – Kate Fleetwood
David Crabtree – Hal Fowler
Helen – Linzi Hateley
Tim – Paul Hilton
Ron – Nick Holder
Councillor Carole – Claire Moore
Simon Newton – Michael Shaeffer
Rosemary – Nicola Sloane
Dodge – Paul Thornley
Terry – Howard Ward
Gordon – Duncan Wisbey
Mark – Tom Hardy
Hayley – Rosie Hilal
Natalie – Amy Griffiths
Colette McBeth – Gillian Bevan
Jessica – Anna Hale
Schoolgirl 1 – Eloise Laurence
Schoolgirl 2 – Meg Hateley Suddaby
Kath – Angela Bain
Margaret – Jenny Galloway
Alan – Sean Kingsley
Imelda – Jayne McKenna
Jason – Richard Frame
BBC Newsreader – Alecky Blythe
Grahame Cooper – Mark Lockyer
Harry – Barry McCarthy
Shop Assistant – Abigail Rose
Evening Star Girl – Maggie Service
Radio Techy – Alexia Khadime
Radio DJ – Dean Nolan
Stephanie – Ruby Holder
Alec – Calvin Demba
Stella – Helena Lymbery
Wayne – Mark Sheals
Graeme – Morgan Walters
Ivy – Janet Henfrey
Steve Cameraman – Jonathan Glew
Chris Eakin – Jason Barnett
Policeman – Andrew Frame
Anglia Newsreader – Rae Baker
Abby Rose Bryant, Adam Dutton, Adam Vaughan, Alan Vicary, Alicia Woodhouse, Alistair Parker, Amanda Minihan, Ameer Choudrie, Andrew Spillett, Andy Couchman, Anita Booth, Annette Yeo, Audrey Ardington, Barnaby Griffin, Basienka Blakes, Bob Harms, Carl Patrick, Carly Blackburn, Carol Been, Cassandra Foster, Charlotte Broom, Chloe Bingham, Chris Akrill, Clare Humphrey, Clemmie Sveaas, Connor Dowling, Coral Messam, Corinna Powlesland, Cornelia Colman, Courtney Crawford, Cris Penfold, Cris Snelson, Cydney Uffindell-Phillips, Daisy Maywood, Daniella Bowen, David Birch, David Stroller, Debra Baker, Don Gallagher, Edward Baruwa, Elaine Kennedy, Eleanor Clark, Ella Vale, Ellis Rose Rother, Emily Bull, Emma Brunton, Eva Lamb, Faye Stoeser, Frank Stone, Gary Forbes, Graham Hoadly, Haruka Kuroda, Hayley Gallivan, Helen Colby, Hendrick January, Ian Conningham, Ilana Johnston, Ilse Johnston, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Jack Edwards, Jackie Marks, James Ballanger, Jess Ellen, John Brannoch, Johnathan Fee, Jon Ponting, Joshua Lacey, Judith Paris, Julie Armstrong, Karianne Andreassen, Kayleigh Clayton, Laura Cubitt, Leah Ellis, Leah Georges, Leanna Wiggington, Lee Nicholas Harris, Linda Lewcock, Louis Fonseca, Louise Lee, Lucinda Shaw, Luke Fetherston, Lynne Wilmot, Marc Antolin, Margarita Reeve, Melanie La Barrie, Michael Fox, Michelle Wen Lee, Miles Mlambo, Miroslav Zaruba, Morgan Crowley, Natalie Victoria Dungan, Nathan Amzi, Nathan Harmer, Nathan Rigg, Nicholas Marshall, Oliver Roll, Paul Blackwell, Paul Bullion, Paul Shea, Perry Moore, Pete Meads, Philip Howard, Rachel Ann Davies, Rajesh Kalhan, Rebecca Scarott, Rebecca Sutherland, Rebecca Thomas, Reuben Williams, Rob Smithson, Sarah Heyward, Sarah Stanley, Sidney Livingstone, Simon Fee, Simon Humphrey, Stephanie Natufe, Stephen Webb, Steve Carroll, Steve Elias, Stuart Angell, Susan Fay, Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Tim Coldron, Tom Lyle Severn, Tomos James, Tony Pankhurst, Tony Timberlake, William Rossiter, Yinka Williams, Zoe Uffindell
Additional Choral ADR Group
Bethan Nash, Callum McIntyre, Daisy Maywood, Edward MacArthur, George Ikediashi, Hannah Genesius, Patrick Tolan, Perry Moore, Steve Rostance, Toby Webster,
The personal connections that one can easily build up in a city such as London are so wide-ranging that the riots of 2011 would most likely have affected us all in some particular way or other. For me, as a former resident of Hackney Downs, it was the sight of an innocuous convenience store being looted that really got me, it was a shop I’d passed every day from which I’d picked up many a bottle of Diet Coke or a lottery ticket and to see it being gutted felt very much not in tune with what Mark Duggan’s death should have stood for.
So I was fascinated to see that Alecky Blythe’s new playLittle Revolutionwas focusing on this very shop and the community action that arose from its ransacking. Though 2011’s London Roadsaw her break through to mainstream success, Blythe has long been a proponent of verbatim theatre, by which she records interviews with real people at the heart of a certain issue and constructs a play out of their exact words – accents, inflections, verbal tics and all.Continue reading “Review: Little Revolution, Almeida”
“It takes a certain kind of person to work in the city”
Nicholas Pierpan has looked previously at the financial sector before in his monologueThe Maddening Rain, but in his new play You Can Still Make A Killingwhich is now coming to the end of its run at the Southwark Playhouse, his focus pulls out much wider than the impact on just one man. Edward and Jack were both traders at Lehman Brothers but their lives took significantly different turns after the company collapsed as the crisis in financial systems across the world began to really bite.
With too much invested in the firm, Edward’s world falls apart and he is left hanging around hopelessly in his old Starbucks, trying to wheedle his way back in through overheard gossip and tips from former colleagues. He eventually gets a job, but at the Financial Regulations Authority (the FSA by any other name), investigating the very nefarious practices that he himself had been involved in and soon the name of his old friend Jack pops up. For Jack managed to somehow keep his plates spinning in the air and kept his job, as ever more inventive ways of bending the system become necessary. Continue reading “Review: You Can Still Make A Killing, Southwark Playhouse”
“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. Continue reading “Re-review: London Road, National Theatre”
“I get that it was…well, it is…a big deal for some people”
The tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre has and will receive a vast range of coverage through all sorts of media, but perhaps one of the most anticipated is Headlong’s new piece of site-specific theatre, Decade. 19 writers, playwrights mostly and Simon Schama, have all contributed their own responses to the events of the 11th September, their brief purely to be a scene set in the last 10 years, and they have been woven together by director Rupert Goold and housed in a warehouse on St Katharine Docks. I hadn’t intended to see this show so soon, wanting to let the experimental stuff settle before making my visit, but I was forced to reshuffle my diary and in order to fit it in before October and still get one of the cheaper tickets, this was my only opportunity.
After passing through a security checkpoint where you are questioned and ticketed (I was mildly disappointed there was no full body search from my guard, Tobias Menzies), we’re then guided through to take our seats in a replica of the dining room of the Windows On The World restaurant, formerly on the top floors of the North Tower. It’s a quirky entrance that sets the anticipation levels high even if the whole process did take a little time to fully accomplish. Seating is around dinner tables with a large raised stage in the middle of the room and is unallocated though ‘waiters’ do take you a table once summoned by the Maître D’. (My top tip would be to try and get on the long bank of seats on the side opposite the bar as close to the middle as you can. Just before the lights went down, I was advised by our Maître D’, in this case it was the delectable Charlotte Randle, that I might want to move from my original seat to this new place as there’s a certain amount which happens on a balcony level but all on one side, and it would have been rather difficult to see from there. So thank you Charlotte!) Continue reading “Review: Decade, Headlong at St Katharine Dock”
“Begonias, and… petunias, and… um, impatiens and things”
Capitalising on the unexpected runaway success of London Road, the National Theatre have now released a cast recording of the verbatim musical by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork. I revisited the show last week – review can be read here – and so it was quite nice to be able to get this more permanent reminder. It is such an unconventional suite of music but as with anything, repeated exposure brings about a kind of familiarity and so the musical vocabulary used here has now been assimilated, its complexity less bamboozling now and a greater appreciation easier to reach.
The show looks at the sense of community that is built up amongst the residents of London Road in Ipswich as the impact of the murder of 5 prostitutes flows out around them: the road had been where the prostitutes touted for business and it eventually turned out that the murderer, Steve Wright, had recently moved into a house on their street. But the play avoids sensationalism and focusing on the murders and murderer by centring on this group of residents and how they felt as the murders were happening and then their lives turned upside down by the revelation that Wright was living in their midst and the media furore that surrounded the ensuing trial. Continue reading “Album Review: London Road cast recording”
“If you make your house look nice, if you feel good about where you live, you’ll en- you’ll enjoy life a whole lot better”
I hadn’t intended to revisitLondon Roadat the National Theatre even as it scored a much-deserved extension to its run: I adored its daring invention and its deep empathy for its protagonists when I first caught the show at the Cottesloe, but when a ticket on the ultra-bargainous row T popped up on the website (seriously, this is one of the best theatre tips you will get) I just couldn’t resist returning. And it was well worth it. It is such a unique show with surprising levels that it was a real pleasure to take it in a second time, from a different seat too, to soak in some of the details that had passed me by first time round and gain a slightly different perspective on it too.
My original review can be read here and it is interesting looking back at what stood out for me about it on first viewing and how much my opinion was reinforced second time around. Kate Fleetwood and Clare Burt broke my heart all over again with their portrayals, but I really did notice how good everyone is in the show, Rosalie Craig too but particularly the men whom I previously neglected a bit, Hal Fowler struggling to get a word in edgeways, Paul Thornley’s handsome normality, Duncan Wisbey’s blokiness. And having heard the music once, it was interesting to see how much familiarity there was given how untraditional the score is, the repetition of key phrases having earwormed their way into my brain, combined with some just beautiful harmonisation: London Road in bloom is probably the prime example of the quirkiness and emotional power of the music and highly effective in demonstrating early on the potential of this verbatim musical artform.
London Road, with book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe and music and lyrics by Adam Cork, is a show emerged out of an experimental workshop at the National Theatre, pairing unlikely collaborators to create new pieces of musical theatre. What they focused on was a series of interviews Blythe carried out with the residents of London Road, Ipswich, at the time when police were hunting for a serial killer after five women were found murdered. Why she chose that street was because it was where the murderer lived but her focus was not on him or the victims, but rather the people on the periphery, how the whole thing had affected the other inhabitants and as she revisited them months later, what their response as a community was. The show plays in the Cottesloe and this was a preview performance.
Alecky Blythe is an exponent of verbatim theatre, particularly a technique created by Anna Deavere Smith, whereby she interviews her subjects and then creates theatre by reproducing their words and vocal inflections faithfully, right down to the ums and aahs and you knows, in the performance. Working in the musical form has necessitated a slight departure from the pure verbatim form but also allows for the injection of a little dramatic license in adding emphases and repetition to what could be termed the key phrases of the chorus. Adam Cork’s music fits into the same idea of trying to replicate the speech patterns and feelings and remaining as true to the material as possible, rather than composing a musically coherent score per se, he’s created a series of responses to the text. Continue reading “Review: London Road, National Theatre”