London Road – The National Theatre – Review


Ironically enough, I was in Ipswich this weekend visiting family. So there I am the next night at The National Theatre in London watching a piece of theatre about that very town.

London road has been causing quite a stir since it has been known that Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork had written a “musical” about the 2006 London Road murders. Its sensitive subject matter and the fact that it only occurred 5 years ago make it an especially brave subject for them to tackle.

I’m also genuinely unsure of how to write a review of this piece. I was not sure what to expect and having now seen it, I’m not sure how to describe it to someone. I know I regularly talk about how theatre is an “existential” art form, that you have to “be there”. In the case of London Road, words really won’t do justice to the clever piece of theatre this is.

So is it a musical? Is it an opera? Is it play that uses music? Is it a verbatim theatre piece set to music? Yes to all of them, but I think the last description is the most suitable. Adam Cork has taken the verbatim transcripts that Alecky Blythe collected and collated and set them to music. What Adam Cork has cleverly done is weave the idiosyncratic speech patterns and rhythms as the basis of the score. What you get is a very strange basis for a score, but it actually works. It’s musical theatre but NOT as we know it. I’m very excited to see where this production will take it, musical theatre is in many ways stuck in a rut, but this shows that the genre can adapt and something new can be created with it.

I was sceptical I’ll be honest, but it didn’t feel strained, clichéd or wrong. In many ways it re-iterated the verbatim nature of what was being said.

It’s not all sung, and the straight verbatim scenes are actually a good counterpoint to the music. The score has some genuinely beautiful melodies and arrangements.

The cast are incredible; they number 11 but play 52 parts between them, capturing the subtle nuances and accents of each. There are a core group of characters that make up the Neighbourhood Watch Group and it’s their experiences we follow. I have to admit I found it a fascinating story. It was also challenging to see how the residents of that street dealt with the whole situation. Alecky Blythe doesn’t edit her verbatim transcripts to present a perfect view of the street at all. Far from it, each character has their say, and I was surprised at what some had to say.

They also sing in a way that is unlike any other type of singing I’ve heard.  Adam Cork says in the programme notes, “I wanted to find a way of singing with the quality of speech, which is altogether different from either an operatic or a conventional music-theatre vocal style.” This has certainly been achieved. I found the music and singing almost hypnotic and it really does draw you into the story the characters are telling.

I was also impressed at how this cast really created a sense of a small community, they really did come across as the characters they were portraying, and that there was a bond between them. It’s hard to put into words, but if you see it I think you’ll understand what I mean, the cast embodied the community feel they were showing us.

The idea of a “state of the nation” play is something I’ve studied but honestly felt I’d never really seen, London Road has changed that. It shows a microcosm of British life as it is at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and how that community dealt with a tragic event. In a town where “nothing really happens”.  It taps into the search of our current society for “community/big society” (whatever that might mean)

I saw the first preview night and thought the cast and musicians gelled well. I did think the song/scene where the court verdict is passed, was a bit difficult to understand as the numerous cast members representing the different media, becoming more and more frenzied felt a bit too frenzied for me. In a piece that requires the cast and musicians to get the rhythm and pacing of the speech/song just right, I am impressed that they were so spot on for their first preview and it is testimony to them that they really have grappled with this piece and are doing it the justice it deserves.

So I have managed to put into words some of my thoughts, I trust they make some sense. As I said at the beginning though, I really think this needs to be seen and experienced to really “get it”, not because it’s some strange esoteric piece, rather there really is nothing else like it (at least that I’m aware of.) Pieces like this is why we have a National Theatre, this has certainly been one of the gems of 2011 so far for me.