BWW Reviews: LONDON ROAD, The National Theatre, April 14 2011
Confronted with great evil, the storyteller must first find a language that can bear its load. Primo Levi found it in the accumulation of the tiny details of life required to survive the death camps; Gordon Burn found it in the repetitions and flat prose of "Happy like Murderers", his account of the deeds of Fred and Rosemary West. In London Road, Alecky Blythe alludes to both approaches (and a bit of Caryl Churchill's sing-song "Serious Money" too) to create an extraordinary piece of theatre that I lamely describe as "theatrical" - in the sense that only theatre could accommodate its conceit and not just make it work, but make it triumph.
In late 2006, Ipswich was in the grip of a modern Jack the Ripper, a man seizing and killing prostitutes almost daily. Ms Blythe interviewed the locals in the midst of the terror and in the succeeding months, with a view to using not just their words, but their pauses, ums, ahs and ers in performance. The audience hears not the crafted sentences of a playwright, but the plain words of ordinary people caught up in successive maelstroms of murder and media. Working with composer Adam Cork, these words and non-words are set to music, half-spoken, half-sung, often reprised and become something akin to an aural mosaic, a composite picture comprising smaller components, each carefully rendered and expertly placed. The story has no dramatic tension, no real heroes, a villain who never appears and, at times, doesn't feel like drama at all - it's more like Gustave Courbet's vast canvas "Funeral at Ornans", in its accumulation of detail and in its honouring of The Common Man and has echoes of Jorge Luis Borges' "Pierre Menard - Author of the Quixote" in its rigorous fidelity to its sources.
Fortunately, the ambition of the work is matched by the skills of the eleven members of an ensemble cast, who stumble, stutter and sort-of-sing their way through words that were previously spoken by 63 men and women. What emerges is a succession of collectively held feelings - fear of the murderer, suspicion of men, resistance to policing, resentment and fascination with the media's work (with a few good jokes at their expense) and hatred for the murderer, alongside an uncomfortable guilty gratitude that his trail of destruction has rid their road of streetwalkers. But at the "play's" heart is neither a story of evil, nor a brilliantly executed experiment in theatrical technique - its central message is that a community can discover itself in the face of adversity and find pride, not just in their gardens and hanging baskets judged in the annual London Road in Bloom competition, but in the spirit of decent people doing decent things, together.
How the stars aligned to bring together subject, words and music into such harmony is a testament to the vision of The National Theatre and the talents of Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork. I haven't seen anything like it before and I shall count myself very fortunate if I see anything like it again.
London Road is at The Cottesloe Theatre until mid-June.