The serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006 and the impact on the local community doesn’t sound the most promising material for a musical, but London Road at the National Theatre is one of the most original pieces of musical theatre you are ever likely to see. London Road is proof that a musical can be more than superficial entertainment, that it can deal with weighty, nuanced subject matter, such as, the meaning of community and the possibility of reconciliation.
In the programme note Alecky Blythe how she interviewed all those who had been affected by the murder of the prostitutes and used these verbatim interviews – with their every “um” and “hmmm” – as the basis of the work:
My first interviews from Ipswich were collected on 15 December 2006: five bodies had been found and no arrests had been made. The town was at the height of its fear. I had been gripped and appalled by the spiralling tragedies that were unravelling in Ipswich during that dark time...It was not what was mainly being reported in the media about the victims or the possible suspects that drew me to Ipswich, but the ripples it created in the wider community in the lives of those on the periphery.
However it was not until six months later on returning to Ipswich to gauge the temperature of the town post arrests but pre-trial, that I stumbled upon what was to me the most interesting development so far. A Neighbourhood Watch that had been set up at the time of the murders had organised a London Road in Bloom competition and the street could not have looked more different from when it had been under siege by the media scrum the winter before. ..Such was the impact of the terrible happenings in that area that the community had come together and set up a series of events, from gardening competitions to quiz nights, in order to try to heal itself.
In Rufus Norris’s brilliant production, this transformation occurs before your eyes as a tea urn produces a hanging basket and the stage blossoms with begonias, petunias, fuchsias and creates an oasis of suburban hope for the community. The composer, Adam Cork, has taken the verbatim testimonies and set them to music, retaining the conversational tics and hesitations that are found in the original recordings. What might have been a journalistic exercise – a conventional piece of docudrama – is taken by the music in a completely unexpected direction.
Simple phrases such as “Yeah, s’quite an umpleasant feeling, everyone is very, very nervous...erm...and very unsure of everything really”, or, “You automatically think it could be him” become the basis for choral singing and complex rounds that take on a hypnotic quality. The natural rhythms of conversation are given a new musical intensity that mirrors the intensity of feeling and emotion experienced by the community.
It is hard to describe the imaginative brilliance of this piece without it sounding like some sort of dodgy experimental theatre. It is experimental and it is theatre but it is very far from dodgy. London Road has one of the most talented and accomplished casts you are likely to see on the London stage at the present moment. This is a production with real imaginative flare and conviction. The subject matter and music gives voice to individuals as they explore the healing properties of living in community and a way of finding meaning and stability in the midst of chaos and violence.