London Road is something of a surprise. The idea of a piece of musical verbatim theatre based around the murders in 2006 of five sex workers in Ipswich sounds like pure madness. In musicals all the characters know the lyrics and the dance-steps through a weird Borg-like symbiosis; how could such a fantastical form hope to engage with something so grimly real? But Alecky Blythe, composer Adam Cork and director Rufus Norris have succeeded in creating one of the best new musicals of recent years using not just the words but the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of an embattled community. What’s more they’ve tackled this raw and painful subject matter in a manner that is both respectful and believable, no mean feat.
London Road explores one of the most documented and shattering mass murders of the last decade and shows how the community of this eponymous street began to rebuild itself. They did this by instigating London Road in Bloom (a competition still going strong) along with a number of other events; gradually these projects helped to return a lost sense of pride for their area. As in her previous work Blythe makes use of recorded interviews, the interviewees’ words reproduced with every pause and sigh intact. These impassioned, defiant, and disturbed snatches of speech provide a unique, first-hand account of both the horrific events themselves and of the wide reaching fall-out.
Hearing what was actually said adds an extra punch but the real brilliance of London Road is that, as a musical, it inherently defies the main issue that always haunts verbatim work, that of objectivity. By making London Road a piece of ‘choric theatre’ (to use Cork’s description) Blythe highlights the fact that she and Cork have heavily edited these words; they are accurate representations of what was said, but the order has been cut and shifted to fit the song structure. In this way the words of an individual become the expressions of a community – the results are both dangerous and empowering.
Katrina Lindsay’s versatile set design and Rufus Norris’ offbeat direction let the words breathe. Every aspect of the production, as overtly theatrical as some of it is, is there to serve the text, to draw out the potential of each and every line. In keeping with the alarming speed in which the murders took place, locations are rapidly established; police tape cordoning off an array of front room sofas is all that’s needed to give a pertinent sense of a violated community. A row of hanging baskets signals a sense of neighbourhood pride.
From the cast it’s hard to pick out any one performance. There is something incredibly moving about the lack of ego in this ensemble and there’s a real sense of them serving the work at the expense of self that is sadly missing from most acting performances.
Cork’s composition is incredibly clever. The complexity of his score of fractured sentences and sentiments is breath-taking, underpinning meaning through unexpected juxtapositions and highlighting collective feeling without drowning out individual voices. Not since Morrisey have words been so incongruously well-fitted to music; in a bloom of harmonies Cork has given a divided community a united voice.
Blythe’s script (if one can call it that) is a testament to the people of this neighbourhood but she does not forget the women at the heart of this tragedy. The voices of those who can no longer speak for themselves are alluded to in an uncomfortable moment of silence as three sex workers stare reproachfully out at a previously jubilant crowd. But nothing is quite as gut-wrenching as one of Blythe’s final edits: “Prostitutes made our life hell, why should we feel sorry for them? They were a complete pain in the neck – they’re better off ten foot under. I’d like to shake Steve Wright’s hand.”
London Road is a respectful celebration of renewal and hope. But Blythe’s genius is in her determination and sense of responsibility, in her resolve to accurately represent real life, including its uglier side; it’s a resolve that makes London Road a truly worthy monument to both the living and dead and a transformative piece of musical theatre.