at the Olivier Theatre, Wednesday 5th September 2012
When I first saw London Road in its original Cottesloe run last year, it was clear it marked a major shift in the way we look at both musicals and theatre in general in Britain (and also demonstrated my rather lazy and shoddy criticism of the time). The very notion of shaping a musical out of verbatim speech was exciting enough on its own, let alone the support of Adam Cork’s deceptively simple orchestration and Rufus Norris’ striking staging. On second viewing, the complexity of London Road is brought to the fore, as the themes Alecky Blythe toys with present themselves in all their intricate glory.
The show (which, if you weren’t aware, tells the story of the community who had to deal with the consequences of the Ipswich murders in 2006) really does mark a shift in the cultural perception of what the musical genre can achieve. My limited knowledge of musicals allows me to know that Rent, for example, was seen as modern due to its contemplation of – for want of a better word – gritty, real-life themes, while Matilda might be seen to be modern due to its demonstration that songs in musicals don’t just have to be poems set to music. London Road, then, ramps up the ante by mixing these two signifiers of modernity in contemporary musicals, being genuinely ‘true’ to life and replicating speech patterns exactly.
So, first let’s look at the notion of verisimilitude presented by Blythe’s concept; over the course of two years following the Ipswich murders, she interviewed the inhabitants of London Road and the surrounding area, recording their take on the events as they unfolded. These words were then interpreted by Cork in song form and the characters replicated on stage. But though these words were actually said and the events actually happened, the idea of truth in London Road is a decidedly woolly one, bringing to the fore the general issues which surround the word in the first place. This is an edited, interpreted, and – ultimately – staged version of events, and so could be argued to be just as fictitious as, say, The Lion King. There’s also the fact that these conversations would never have happened if Blythe hadn’t asked the questions, so before the musical was even created there was an element of performance.
More than any other musical, then, London Road constantly forces us to be aware of the tension between truth and fiction, reality and performance. We constantly imagine these characters in their original situation, and wonder how true-to-life the actors playing them are. Like George Sr. Bluth’s surrogate in Arrested Development, the actor is a kind of puppet, acting as a conduit through which the character’s words can be disseminated to this large audience.
Then there’s the overarching story, which is also true. Not even based on something. It happened. Whereas, for example, Shakespeare took a version of history and made it his own, Blythe puts events on stage in their original context and without changing the story.
I’m running the risk of seeming negative here, so let me lay my cards down by saying that this is what makes London Road so completely unique. While musicals are often seen as an escape from the pressures of life, taking us far away into a land of fancy, Blythe forces us to sit up and look at what happened to this community and the people within it. She shows that musicals can tackle serious subjects if they are used in the right way.
There’s always something vaguely amusing about verbatim theatre, as we don’t simply listen to what is being said but also to how it is being said. The hesitations and nuances of everyday speech are just as important as the words which make sense, and reveal just as much. I think I’d go so far as to argue that Blythe is sort of doing for musicals what Pinter did for plays; he showed that theatre didn’t just have to be grand, sweeping dialogue and rhetoric, but could say just as much in silence and hesitation. By introducing pauses into his work, Pinter presented a more – and here’s that word again – ‘real’ version of human speech on the stage, meaning we leave the theatre after his plays listening to the cadences and caesuras in our friends’ dialogue. Cork and Blythe, then, have achieved a similar outcome, for by making the “um”s and “ah”s just as important in their songs as the complete sentences, they comment on the sheer depth of understanding you can glean from just listening to someone talking. Musicality is found in the most pedestrian of phrases, and laughs are harmonised so they sound like a kind of human church bell. I say this is indicative of a shift in the way we view the potential of the musical genre because – like Minchin and others – Blythe and Cork reveal that songs which mimic dialogue and fully-thought-out sentences can be just as – if not more – rewarding than those which repeat phrases and sound ridiculous when spoken normally.
I also wonder whether there’s a slight, covert dig at the commercial nature of big-budget musicals here, too. Some may argue that London Road allows very little creativity from its actors, who have to recreate the songs and speech exactly the same every night so as to be true to the original (with a few new faces in the Olivier cast, this is certainly shown to be the case; voices may be slightly different but the intonation is still spot on). But then, new cast members for many big West End musicals have to undergo just the same process, so that rather than creating a new character which works for them they have to copy their predecessor exactly so that new audience members get the same production as with the previous cast, until slowly the production becomes so bland it feels like you’re consuming polystyrene. London Road, on the other hand, has actors listening to the original so they can discover nuance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the fact the cast has to replicate speech exactly means hidden depths of emotion can be mined over a long period of time.
Here, too, the words take precedence, and Adam Cork’s smart orchestration means it never overshadows what’s being said. Unlike many musicals, which create epic scores to cover the fact the lyrics are trite, London Road uses music as a way of supporting, rather than ‘enhancing’ the singing. It all sounds relatively electronic (again, limited musical knowledge coming in to play here), in contrast to the hyper-reality presented in the text, and soars at the end of songs like “Everyone is Very Very Nervous” and “London Road in Bloom”. Remarkably, the music has been going round my head non-stop for the past few days; the hallmark of good songwriting.
There’s also something peculiarly Classical about London Road; by focussing on presenting big themes to a large audience, the show offers a kind of catharsis, for both audience and real-life characters.Though the vast majority of us sitting watching the production can’t claim to have been directly affected by the murders, we can all still remember them and their media coverage. The show is, in a way, a collective purging of emotion, as the issues the characters have are aired and we’re able to see the side of the story we didn’t see on the news, allowing us to readjust our views on the events. This democratic aspect is heightened in the larger-scale, Greek-style Olivier theatre, which places real people at the heart of the narrative. These Classical allusions, then, act in direct contrast to the modern presentation and the progressive ideas behind the production, so that, like truth versus fiction, the tension between the two is constantly played out.
On top of all this experimentation with form, London Road also brings some intriguing themes to light. As mentioned above, the piece shows the remarkable strength of the human spirit in the face of tough challenges and the power of community. The inhabitants of London Road have to cope with a gigantic media invasion, which, in a way, is merely a precursor to the huge invasion of privacy the entire populace has seen over the past five years. Katrina Lindsay’s simple design highlights this, using projections and cameras to record and play back live the actions of reporters and citizens alike, reflecting that, though we love to hate the media, we “all still watch the news and buy the papers”. We are all as guilty as each other.
The fact a small, ensemble cast (who are all brilliant, incidentally) plays dozens of characters between them brings to light the small-town mentality of these characters. Blythe presents both their good qualities and their prejudices (“We hoped it was an immigrant from nish-noff land”), forcing us to come to our own conclusions. One of the most interesting songs describes how all the men in Ipswich at the time became instantly demonized (“You automatically think it could be him”), and segregation between the sexes became more pronounced. Once again, contrasts and tensions are exploited to ensure we are constantly kept on our toes.
I realise I’ve talked very little about the production itself in this piece, but that’s because the reason London Road is so special is due to its form (and the fact much has already been written about its presentation). I doubt another musical like this will be created in the near future, but it clearly shows that the idea of what a musical is has begun to shift to fit the multiplicity of the twenty-first century. Along with Matilda, London Road proves that musicals don’t have to be lazily written and rely on big-budgets, catering to the lowest common denominator, but can in fact spark reflection and discussion.