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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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge