|Photo: Graham Burke|
When it opened at London’s National Theatre in 2011, London Road: A Musical was met with rapturous reviews, critical acclaim and a sold-out run. So quite what happened in transition to Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre I’m not sure.
Directed by Nicholas Bone, London Road is a brave attempt to combine verbatim theatre with musical theatre to retell the true story of a series of brutal murders using the speech and inflections of those who were there.
Verbatim theatre uses exactly the same words as were spoken by a person as part of the performance – so in this case, Alecky Blythe interviewed the real-life residents of Ipswich’s London Road to gain their perspectives of the notorious killings of five local sex workers in 2006. Complete with repetitions, fillers, malapropisms and unfinished sentences, those interviews are repeated here on the stage by actors. And following the natural rhythm of the Ipswich accent, composer Adam Cork has set this to music, performed by a live band.
It just doesn’t work. The actual narrative of London Road and the stories of those affected by the murders becomes secondary to the self-conscious and all-consuming performance style of tedious repetition and overly intrusive live music. With one or two lines repeated over and over during a three or four minute song, it takes a very long time for the narrative to move forwards, and essentially very little happens in what should have been a fascinating story.
The effects on neighbours of living next door to serial killer should be gripping. The paranoia, the suspicion, the change of habits, the curtain twitching, the press intrusion, the propulsion onto the nation’s TV screens… But this production of London Road allows none of this.
With a cast of 12 actors playing 66 characters, there is no empathy or development for any character, meaning there’s no room for the audience to build a connection of identification with any one person. So it is impossible to single out any one actor for their performance. Couple this with the patronising portrayal of these characters – who, let’s not forget, are real people. The murders happened in 2006, meaning this is recent history. So why the inhabitants of London Road are dressed like stereotyped characters from a 1970s sitcom set in a community centre I do not know. Why are they dressed in socks and Birkenstocks? Why are the men wearing zip-up cardigans? Why does their furniture look like it was found on a skip in the 1970s? This is patronising and it is not realistic.
Unfortunately London Road: A Musical does not sit comfortably. What could have been a fascinating and imaginative narrative, putting a new spin on existing genres, ended up as a frustrating and tedious performance that fell short of the mark.