Sunday 19th August (matinée)
We had two very good reasons to go and see London Road, recently revived at the National’s Olivier Theatre: a production which has attracted a lot of interest due to its subject matter as well as critical acclaim; and £12 tickets courtesy of Travelex. It’s a long time since we’ve sat so close to the stage for so little.
London Road is certainly unusual. Created from interviews with some of the Ipswich residents who lived on the road where Steve Wright was living at the time when he killed five prostitutes in 2006, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork have transformed the stories they heard into a multi-layered musical piece which defies categorisation. We have seen some very powerful works based on verbatim accounts, most notably the Tricycle’s production of The Riots, Stockwell and fact-based drama Deepcut. However, we feel that these all have one important thing in common. They came out of a burning need to tell a story, and to get answers to important questions. Going in to see ‘London Road’, we wondered what the burning issues of the residents of this now infamous road might be, and having seen the production, we have to admit to being none the wiser.
It is to the credit of the writers that they have created such an entertaining and intriguing piece. Small vignettes involving various characters (the cast list informs us that there are 63 in total) are built into full blown ‘showstoppers’, cacophonous and strangely melodic by turns, and as a study of the banalities of modern life, there are some amusing and disturbing moments. The pub regular who seems to know too much about serial killers suddenly coming under suspicion, the husband whose wife speaks for him, the radio DJ giving out free personal alarms, and the chilling confession by one of the characters that she is grateful to the murderer for ‘cleaning up the streets’. These exchanges have a ring of truth about them, and the repetition and musical treatment are mesmerising at times. The cast are excellent, bringing a distinctive voice to all the characters, major and minor, and Rufus Norris’s direction is slick, with a revolve enabling quick changes of scene, and some clever use of video, living room furniture, and police tape.
Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork have certainly proved that you can make a musical out of the most unlikely material, and their style has already been parodied on youtube, so they have clearly made an impact. Ultimately, though, we did feel that the style of the piece was allowed to take over to the detriment of the content. Whilst there may be psychological truth in the way that people often cling to triviality under stressful circumstances, authenticity is not enough to make a compelling drama. There are no characters we could really root for, which made it hard to engage emotionally, yet there was not enough intellectual exploration to satisfy us. We could not see any real growth in the characters, and in fact their growing obsession with hanging baskets as a symbol of community cohesion seems to be strangely appropriate – a superficial and unsustainable form of gardening.
Reading about the creation of this piece, we were intrigued to discover the degree to which the residents controlled the finished product, and the concern of the writers to be respectful of their wishes. One of the dominant themes is their dislike of being classed as residents of a ‘red light district’, and their concern with how they are perceived, so we find it particularly ironic that they apparently don’t seem to mind being depicted as uncaring, self-centred and narrow-minded. For us, this was the most disturbing aspect of the production, with the uplifting music and proliferation of flowers at the end feeling like the aftermath of a ceremony in which five young women are sacrificed (and some even feel they are better off dead) to cleanse the ‘community’ of its pollution.