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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Cottesloe)


  Ph: Helen Warner

Docudrama often takes the lucid and direct, but theatrically unexciting, form of verbatim monologues; and it’s not a variety that frequently cross-pollinates with musicals. With this new work about the 2006 murders of five prostitutes in the Suffolk town of Ipswich, though, writer Alecky Blythe, composer Adam Cork and director Rufus Norris have created something startlingly new and utterly extraordinary. London Road – named after the residential street where serial killer Steve Wright lived, and where his victims plied their trade – is a sung-through piece whose libretto is entirely authentic, and whose score mirrors the cadences, coughs, giggles and hesitations of real speech. The effect is almost hyper-real – mesmerising, entirely absorbing, blackly comic and shatteringly moving. Rarely does musical theatre get more urgent or potent than this.
Blythe is a theatre-maker with a particular methodology. Her scripts are garnered from interviews with individuals connected with or affected by her subject matter, collected in tape recordings. In previous productions – which have considered, among other things, life in a brothel and the senior-citizen dating scene – the performers have worn earphones, through which the recorded interviews have been played, enabling them to recreate the voices of the interviewees seconds after hearing them. The musical element here makes such an approach impractical, but speech rhythms and intonations are carefully preserved and reproduced, honoured by Cork’s intricate, jittery and occasionally lyrical score. Melodies are wrapped round the rise and fall of conversation, and when the dialogue swells to embody a scene in the local pub, on city centre streets full of Christmas shoppers, or at a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, the effect is thrillingly dynamic.
What’s revealed amid the hubbub, in moments of introspection and instants of bleak, eerie stillness, is a community’s response to horrific tragedy. It’s not always a pretty picture. Amid the distress and disbelief, there are racist suggestions that the killer might be a foreigner (“a Polish bastard”), and misogynistic jibes at the victims. There’s the uneasiness of young girls who feel stalked and nervous, and of the innocent men who chafe under their suspicious glances. And, as Wright is caught and brought to trial, there is the overwhelming presence of police and the media circus, filling the stage, in Javier de Frutos’ deft movement direction, with a cat’s cradle of hazard tape and electrical wires.
The banal and the bleakly funny collide with the unthinkable. News reporters fret over technical problems and try to find euphemisms for semen permissible for TV lunchtime bulletins (“love juice?” suggests a cameraman helpfully). London Road residents are frustrated by the blot on their locale’s reputation, and fuss about making tea for the scores of crime-scene investigators. In one disturbing scene, a woman even suggests that Wright did the neighbourhood a favour by cleaning the street of vice. The most powerful minutes of all, though, are also the quietest: Three working girls presage their responses to the murders with a protracted silence, a devastating reminder not just of the deaths of five women, but of the voice they were denied in life, vilified and marginalised as they were. This is remarkable theatre that, in its unstinting evocation of the ordinary, becomes something truly rich and rare.


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