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.