Serial killer West End thriller

Gina Allum on "London Road".

At last, something new under the sun! The innovatory zest of London Road, directed by Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, makes much else on the West End look like an unappetising selection of so many ready meals - theatre to "reheat and serve".

Alecky Blythe specializes in "verbatim" theatre, crowd-sourced scripts, if you will. For London Road, she infiltrated and interviewed residents on the Ipswich street where serial killer Steve Wright lived - briefly, but long enough to murder five prostitutes. She gleaned material from the time when there were five bodies and no suspects, to when the community try to salvage some civic pride from the neighbourhood wreckage, with a London Road in Bloom competition.

In an unlikely pairing with Adam Cork at a practitioners' workshop at the National, the verbatim accounts, overheard dialogue and newsreel footage were set to music. All the mistakes, fillers and prosody of spoken English are painstakingly mapped and notated in a surprisingly catchy style that slips somewhere between G&S and rock opera. The result is sometimes side-splittingly funny. The score preserves and enshrines happy accidents like "papparatti", and the completely tongue-tied: "Yeah. Yeah. So, yeah".

Ums and ahs are everywhere. Reporters stutter and shilly-shally over the correct wording for ejaculate before 10pm, in order to avoid the "Mummy what's semen" moment. The photographers' brittle chat is rendered to rap, with "um" as the final beat of the line.

This show gives you new ears for the spoken words around you, and makes you realise how much of it typically doesn't make the final cut in our dramatic arts. The formalisation of everyday inarticulacy is not just a big joke, however. It gives the commonplace a gravitas, and the rounds and repetitions raise the emotional temperature and drive the narrative. "I'm a little bit upset" becomes a haunting refrain; a reporter's request to the studio "can you come to me?" repeated over and over takes on a ritualistic desperation. News bulletins are fugued; the verdict is delivered as a requiem for the dead.

The cast show freakish fidelity to the accents and rhythms of the locals (and hats off to Jeanette Nelson, the dialect coach). They play the 11 colourful members of the newly formed Neighbourhood Watch, and 52 other parts including neighbours, the press pack, and at one point, three prostitutes that Blythe had also recorded. It's a clean, clever ensemble staging as their bodies morph along with their idiolects into all the characters and bit parts.

Katrina Lindsay's design has a functional beauty, which is lovingly dressed up with a bit of jaunty kitsch. A tea urn flowers into a hanging basket; the police tape, which at one point imprisons the residents in a cat's-cradle of bindings, translates to a snazzy ribbon curtain for the residents' raffle night. There is a first storey platform for the excellent David Shrubsole's band (and for resident Gordon's guitar solo), which doubles as the very ordinary bay window of the notorious house number 79. At one point it is backlit, and we see the silhouette of a woman sitting at the window, a mute reminder of the industry of sex.

But this story is not about the prostitutes, although it touches on the spin-off "benefits" of the murders for the remaining sex workers. It's about the paranoia, pain and halting regeneration of a community that unwillingly hosted both the streetwalkers and the subsequent media storm surrounding their deaths. Ambivalence and self-interest add grit to the homely mix: the prostitutes are "those poor girls" but also "foul-mouthed sluts". One unlooked-for advantage to the increased police presence was that "no-one stole the Christmas wreath this year". We could be just a shade away from a discussion of the impact on property prices.

And there's ambivalence in the stalls, too. There's an uncomfortable sense in which we smart metropolitan types are gazing at and ridiculing the antics of small-town provincials at the zoo, and it's unclear just how far the contributors knew they were being tapped and spliced for our delight. The canning of off-the-cuff remarks - the vox pop, ossified - and the tyranny of the editing suite are liable to make muppets of us all.

Ultimately, though, however much she may have played fast and loose with context, or cheated a timing, Blythe curates the comments with a good deal of tenderness. And for all the townspeople's vivid local colour, their failings, and their failing language - why, they're just like ours.

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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