Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork's London Road premiered with a resounding splash last year, and this revival in the Olivier reminds why - a verbatim musical sounds excruciating, but Blythe and Cork have found a rather delightful storytelling style to dive into real accounts around the Ipswich prostitute murders of 2006.
For those (including myself, truth be told) who missed this news story, a man living in the titular London Road was convicted, in 2008, of the murder of 5 prostitutes. Taken from verbatim accounts, this musical covers what happened and the resulting attempts by other London Road inhabitants to clean up their local community - although the focus is more on the community itself, a group of very normal people and their reactions to the ghastly events.
It's quite difficult to objectively review a piece that has already had such universal acclaim, although it's absolutely deserved: this is a rather incredible piece of theatre, in conception as well as production. However, to start with a negative, this is a piece that does suffer from the same problems as other verbatim accounts: the story is less of a cohesive plot, some thematic points come and go willy-nilly, and there's disappointingly little incisive discussion of the social problems. However, if one takes verbatim theatre as a snapshot, a rather wonderful way of getting a truthful glance across society during a given moment, then this does that with aplomb.
All being said, the most impressive aspect of this production is the music. Cork and Blythe have managed the seemingly impossible by matching verbatim accounts to music, although it does take a while for the ear to get accustomed to the peculiar rhythms of the piece, often blending multiple voices, repeated words and sentences into a lyrical and musical mish-mash that manages to communicate, beautifully, a common British vernacular. It's a truly remarkable achievement. As mentioned above, it does take a little getting used to - and it's not always fully comprehensible - but it's still rather beautiful and wholly original, which is not something a theatre reviewer gets to say very often these days.
The performances are strong, with the cast of 13 jumping into the shoes of various Ipswich locals and members of the press, mostly through enjoyable accent work. No one really stands out, but that's the point of good ensemble work - and this is truly an ensemble, bouncing off of each other vocally in a piece that needs a strong working dynamic. The set and design is also spot-on, with wire-frames of people adding bodies to the sometimes spartan set, and a clever use of two levels, various pieces on furniture and, in one notable scene, police tape are all a credit to designer Katrina Lindsay.
So why am I only giving this 4 stars, when it's had 5 everywhere else? Because it isn't truly perfect - my own feelings about verbatim theatre notwithstanding, the original use of verbatim accounts as song lyrics does occasionally lead to gabbling, and I'm not convinced that this works as a story. We follow various families through the tragedy, and there is a vague sense of plot, but that's it - we are barely let into discussions about the whys and wherefores of the murders, the social economics that led up to them, or even how the inhabitants really feel about them. There's one noteable scene, towards the end, where one of the housewives articulates how the murderer might have done a good thing - a terrible thought and an interesting theatrical angle, but not really explored here. Instead, the piece is mostly heart, with the triumphant lowering of floral bouquets at the end a pretty image of a community rebuilding itself.
To reiterate: hugely impressive on a number of levels, original in the best possible way, and a credit to all involved, but just not quite worthy of that 5 star review. And someone (or some show) still needs to convince me that verbatim theatre can ever truly achieve that.