Friday 29 April 2011

London Road at the National, or, I see your violent fisherman and I raise you one serial killer

Some critics have expressed the view that this is subject matter that shouldn't work in musical form – that is the story of a serial killer. The obvious caveat to this is that Sondheim has dealt with a related subject brilliantly in Assassins. The more relevant caveat is that this show really isn't about the killer or his victims (except in one brief interlude in Act Two) but about the community in which they took place. As such apart from the discomforture of seeing certain aspects of human life on stage I didn't find the subject matter especially unsettling.

The defining quality of this show is the source of its material and the way the performers are required to deliver it. This is the first time I have experienced the approach of the Recorded Delivery Theatre Company of which Alecky Blythe is the Artistic Director and my overall feeling is that while there are effective aspects to it there are dangers of repetition which this show did not completely escape. I should note that it is the techniques of the company which are employed here. These are to go out into a community (in this case London Road, Ipswich) and record interviews. Performers are then required to reproduce as exactly as possible the speech patterns of, and exact text spoken by, the interviewees. On the face of it, as composer and lyricist Adam Cork notes in the programme, this might seem difficult to do with the addition of music but Cork actually finds a musical language (which we'll come back to) which successfully reflects Blythe's style.

The world into which we are taken is that of the London Road Neighbourhood Watch association, revitilised following the disruption to their community of the murders, as police and journalists swarm over the street. Normal access and services are disrupted, and one feels for the couple stuck next door to the house of the murderer – I can't have been the only homeowner in the audience contemplating the likely effect on the value of their house of such a circumstance. Nor is one kept from moments of cringing – at the AGM which begins the show, the chairman comments that the remnents of prostitution may have been pushed into a neighbouring street - “but we can't worry about that.” The faintly pushy, sometimes slightly desperate edge to the group events is similarly unsettling. Blythe and Cork, perhaps in a sense the residents themselves, also expose the darker sides of our natures from the comparatively obvious suggestion that an immigrant must be to blame, to the really unsettling cafe scene where two teenagers watch a set of single male patrons (one of whom with book, and overcoat not dissimilar to my own was particularly unnerving to watch) and ponder whether the murderer could be him.

Some critics have debated whether this is a play with music, or a musical. Actually for me the strongest influences were operatic. The ghost of Britten's Peter Grimes very definitely lurks – the London Road inhabitants become the Borough inhabitants of our times – nowhere more so than when the cast are transformed into a howling mob awaiting the arrival for trial of the unseen Steve Wright. Musically the influence is clearly minimalist, one thinks of John Adams's operas and Steve Reich's work for string quartet and tape, Different Trains. However, where those works score over this is that the invention and narrative are sustained. Often Blythe and Cork's numbers go on that tiniest bit too long, and particularly in the second half my engagement began to flag (one audience member tried to start applause before the final chorus which suggests I was not alone. A bit of judicious cutting would not go amiss. Having said that, that final chorus does remain in my mind (a paean to their revitilised gardens which now I think about it perhaps echoes Bernstein's finale to Candide).

In terms of the cast this is a superb ensemble who not only have to perform the various central members of the Neighbourhood Watch but also an array of journalists (Michael Schaeffer's struggle with the fact that he can't use the word “semen” on a news broadcast before the watershed is particularly brilliant), prostitutes (the one scene where we see three of them soliciting is forcefully done though the pause before they say anything goes on too long) and other Ipswich inhabitants. One of the reasons I wanted to see this was that it includes Rosalie Craig (legendary music theatre performer of our times who I most recently saw in the Jermyn Street Theatre revival of Anyone Can Whistle), but while Craig is excellent, she is much more in a supporting role here. The central figure is Kate Fleetwood's Julie, a marvellous performance, while for sheer range and versatility I would also single our Nicola Sloane (whose characters range from prostitutes to mob old lady). They are well supported by the band under music director David Shrubsole.

This show also finally explains why people have been hiring Rufus Norris and Javier de Frutos, neither of whom have distinguished themselves in previous work of theirs I have seen. Here movement, unlike in other de Frutos efforts, is in perfect sympathy with text and music and crafts a number of arresting scenes – the most effective being the trapping of the cast on their sofas and armchairs in a web of police tape. Once again the intimacies of the Cottesloe are put to good use.

Overall then, I urge you not to be put off by the stylistic approach or the subject matter. Despite some shortcomings this is a powerful piece of theatre and should not be missed.

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