It's strange to think how many great musicals have a source material which seems so unpromising. A barber who cuts his clients throats. A student uprising quelled on the streets of Paris leading to the death of a large majority of its cast. A romance between a gambler and a devout Salvation army gal. London Road may top the lot. A musical based on verbatim conversations between playwright Alecky Blythe and residents on the aforementioned Ipswich street where lorry driver Steven Wright lived whilst killing five prostitutes sounds like the kind of idea dreamt after a very heavy night of drinking, quickly to be forgotten in the hungover haze. Remarkably, with the aid of the music and lyrics from Adam Cork, Britain finds the best musical of the past twenty years.
Rufus Norris, NT artistic director incumbent, directed with great success the world premiere (and is currently working on the film version) a gig that one imagines did his chances no harm at all. The highest compliment I can pay this version is that it more then matches the original and finds in its intimacy moments that pay off even better then the original. In Nicholas Bone's fine production what comes out most clearly is the sense of a community finding itself again after tragedy. There is no grandstanding, very little conventional drama, but watching a street find its identity again through a ‘London Road in bloom' competition proves a thing of great theatre. The antagonist here is a terrible crime with long lasting ramifications for all.
The music of Cork is a marvel, taking the dialogue Blythe recorded with the street residences; with all the cadences, rhythms and awkward pauses that entails and composing a score that builds on repetition to maximum poetical intensity. The moments that really stood out included the repeat of "Everone's very, very nervous" as residents faced walking the streets wondering who the killer is, the closing moments of Act One as the actors turns from choral harmony to a baying crowd demanding blood and back again, and the final stanza's as colour is finally introduced to the stage (Max Johns design, deliberately muted) as London Road is brought into bloom.
It'll be interesting to see if London Road marks a new long lasting genre in musical theatre the same way Andrew Lloyd Webber made his mark on the 80's and 90's with his brand of bombastic musical theatre. I would suggest this is more unlikely to stick, but if London Road is to be the one production in this genre then what a result. For all theatre lovers in the South West, whether musical lovers or not, flock to the Old Vic. It's completely unmissable.
London Road plays at Bristol Old Vic Studio untill Saturday 21st June.