Film Review: London Road

“Everybody’s very very nervous”

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
 
Ensemble
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,   

 

Review: Everyman, National Theatre

“It seems every man has had enough of me”

Starting quite literally with the Fall of Man, Carol Ann Duffy’s contemporary verse adaptation of medieval morality play Everyman sees Rufus Norris direct his first production since taking up the reins of Artistic Director at the National Theatre and finds him in a rather provocative mood. Through 100 minutes of boldly imagined drama, it’s hard not to feel that there’s an element of grabbing this institution by the lapels and giving it a good old shake. Not so much in establishing a definitive vision for the future per se but more in establishing just how wide its parameters will be. 

Norris and designer Ian MacNeil work cleverly within the constraints of the Travelex budget to provide impactful moments with – variously – Tal Rosner’s video wall, a powerful wind machine, William Lyons’ music which combines shawms with Sharon D Clarke most effectively and bags of rubbish. Javier De Frutos makes a significant contribution too as choreographer and movement director, the wordless opening sequence of a coke-and-Donna-Summer-fuelled birthday party makes for a bold beginning. Continue reading “Review: Everyman, National Theatre”

CD Review: Paradise Lost

“If I go to Heaven, my fate is assured” 

Full disclosure first, I was a contributor to the Kickstarter campaign for this studio cast recording of new musical Paradise Lost as attested on this page here (although darn that pesky line break!) I can’t really remember what prompted such benevolence from me, ‘twas just the second thing I have helped to fund in the smallest way but something about this musical treatment of John Milton’s poem clearly caught my attention and with the finished product now in hand, I can clearly see why. 

Lee Ormsby’s music and story and Jonathan Wakeham’s book and lyrics has a self-confessed aim of “epic storytelling” and through a determination to forefront character and bold, accessible music, the 24 tracks that make up this double album offer a tantalising glimpse into what has the potential to be a truly spectacular musical. Bucking contemporary trends somewhat, it looks back to a time of 80s mega-musicals but infuses it with real heart to make a beguiling confection.  Continue reading “CD Review: Paradise Lost”

Review: Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse

“Lock your door and hide your daughter”

After the extraordinary success that was In The Heights, the Southwark Playhouse have gone for another American musical theatre import in the shape of 2012’s Dogfight. But whilst expectations were high – something heightened by the auditorium being in the same configuration as for that previous show, the reality fell far short. Peter Duchan’s book, based on the 1991 film of the same name, follows a group of boisterous marines in San Francisco on the night before they’re due to fly out to Vietnam as they look to maintain the (dis)honourable tradition of holding a dogfight.

As we come to realise, their version of a dogfight is distinctly unpleasant, a cruel game played on unsuspecting women and though he is a part of this world of pent-up testosterone and hints of sexual violence, the young Eddie Birdlace soon comes to regret his choice of victim – a sweet waitress called Rose – and tries to make amends, though whether this is because he has fallen instantly in love with her or he has spotted an easy way to get laid on his last night is anyone’s guess. So what is trying to be a sweet love story is overlaid with this troubling sour note throughout. Continue reading “Review: Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Carousel, Arcola

“Fresh and alive and gay and young”

It’s kind of hard to avoid the many rave reviews that this Morphic Graffiti revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel has received so it won’t surprise those who know me that I wasn’t quite as blown away by it as were others. I have somehow managed to avoid ever seeing it before and I wonder if that made the difference – a recurring theme seems to be ‘one of the best versions I’ve ever seen’ indicating a deep seated affection for the show (much like Miss Saigon) whereas to fresh ears and eyes, the splendour of the score can’t always paper over the more questionable aspects of the book. 

There’s certainly much to appreciate in Luke Frederick’s production – the reconceptualising of a ‘big’ musical into the boutique space of the Arcola has been excellently done. Lee Proud’s choreography has a great feel for the expressive and exhilarating potential in such intimacy and Andrew Corcoran’s tight band of five create a great musical sound, especially blessed by the unmiked singing which lends a rawness and immediacy that feels entirely appropriate for the venue. I can well imagine it not having sounded quite like this before and therefore exciting those who loved it already. Continue reading “Review: Carousel, Arcola”

Re-review: Merrily We Roll Along, Harold Pinter

“Me with music and you the words“

Menier Chocolate Factory Christmas musicals have a habit of making the leap into the West End and given the rapturous reception that Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along received last year, it was no surprise to hear that it would make the well-deserved transfer into the Harold Pinter Theatre for a 12 week engagement. My original review of the show can be read here and perhaps not unexpectedly, very little has changed of my feelings about this rather magnificent production. But more surprising was how little I felt it had changed in the considerably larger space of this new theatre. 

It’s a good six months since I saw it so perhaps my memory isn’t too reliable but it really does feel very similar indeed, Soutra Gilmour’s design slots into the theatre in a similar fashion and the staging – although expanded to fill the space – moves around it in the same way. Not that this is a bad thing, but rather that I’m not exactly sure about how it might play from further back or up in the theatre than you’d ever be in the Menier. Where the lack of discernible difference is a definite boon though is in the performance level. Continue reading “Re-review: Merrily We Roll Along, Harold Pinter”

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

“We go way back, never forward”

Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along famously flopped on Broadway when it opened in 1981 but now refined and reappraised, it is considered amongst his finest work and this Menier Chocolate Factory production serves to bolster that reputation. Directed by Maria Friedman, no stranger to Sondheim’s work as an actor but making her professional directorial debut here, the story traces the fortunes of Franklin, Mary and Charley, three writer friends buzzing with creative energy and determined to make their mark on the world. Real life intervenes though and the mistakes, sacrifices and compromises made in their lives as success changes them in unexpected ways are highlighted and heightened by a reverse timeline which sees Sondheim and book writer George Furth move scene by scene from 1976 to 1957.  

It is Franklin who lies at the heart of the story. An unsympathetic figure who we meet as the height of his unlikeability in the midst of a soulless Hollywood party, it is to Mark Umbers’ immense credit that he makes this man such an intriguing person, transcending the limitations of the book which provides little clue as to his motivations. Umbers’ Franklin sparkles with a seductively easy charm that makes him understandably hard to resist and suggests that it not with malice that he rides roughshod over others, but rather that his head is simply too easily turned by the next new bright thing. Jenna Russell’s Mary’s slow self-destruction as unrequited love eats her from the inside is just devastating to watch, all the more so for being played in reverse and realising just how long she has held a flame for her friend, and Damian Humbley’s well-judged Charley has a geeky reticence that explodes in fine style with a delicious rip through ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc’. Continue reading “Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Re-Review: Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg, Palladium

“I had a revelation when I skipped my medication”

One of the cardinal rules of theatre booking is that you should never book to see a show just to see a particular performer as that road can only lead to disappointment. And so it came to be when I booked a return visit to Sister Act The Musical when it was announced that Whoopi Goldberg would be covering the role of Mother Superior for most of August for the sole reason of seeing her rather than any desire to see the show again. With the sad news of her mother taking very ill, Whoopi was forced to cut her run short and return to the US and so I ended up giving my tickets to a friend.

But the world works in mysterious ways and I clearly had some good karma stored up so when I booked the shows on my Groupon deal (including this one as I had decided to give it a whirl again since it had announced it was closing in advance of a move to Broadway and also to make way for The Wizard of Oz) and was randomly allocated a date, it just so happened to coincide with Goldberg’s return to the show for just 5 performances. Continue reading “Re-Review: Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg, Palladium”