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Review Round-up: Blythe Captures London Road

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London Road, which opened at the National Theatre last night (14 April, previews from 7 April) tells a dark story of the rural town of Ipswich, rocked in autumn 2006 by the discovery of the bodies of five women.

The residents of London Road had struggled for years with the soliciting and kerb-crawling that they frequently encountered. As Steve Wright, the occupant of No. 79, was arrested, charged and then convicted of the murders, the immediate community grappled with what it meant to be at the epicentre of this tragedy.

Adam Cork sets the melodic and rhythmic speech patterns captured on playwright Alecky Blythe's extensive recorded interviews to music, creating an experimental and challenging work.

Directed by Rufus Norris, the production has an 11-strong cast including Clare Burt, Rosalie Craig, Kate Fleetwood, Hal Fowler, Nick Holder, Claire Moore, Michael Shaeffer, Nicola Sloane, Paul Thornley, Howard Ward and Duncan Wisbey.

London Road continues in rep until 18 June 2011 in the NT Cottesloe.

Michael Coveney

"There's serial music for a serial killer in Adam Cork's brilliant new score for London Road, a verbatim theatre piece by Alecky Blythe, based on interviews she conducted with neighbours of the man at number 79, London Road, Ipswich, who killed five prostitutes in the last weeks of 2006. The healing powers of music have rarely been so fulsomely demonstrated as the company of eleven sing their way to living with the past and facing the future, restoring their street to something like normality, in a set of company chorales, rounds and musical meditations. Cork, who's best known for his wonderful soundscapes at the Donmar Warehouse and for Rupert Goold ... he wrote the music for Enron ... really comes into focus in this show, which is ingeniously directed by Rufus Norris on a split set by Katrina Lindsay of coloured panels, a big bay window ... housing a six-piece band ... and a glorious effusion of flower baskets...Norris has a hand-picked cast of musical theatre exponents: Clare Burt as a garrulous neighbourhood watch committee member whose husband (Hal Fowler) can't finish a sentence; Claire Moore and Howard Ward as a blissed out couple, salt of the earth; Rosalie Craig and Duncan Wisbey as retired teachers... At last we have a really worthwhile, home-grown, experimental piece of musical theatre at the National. Let's hope London Road starts a trend.”

Brian Logan

"Here's a novel idea for David Cameron's big society: nothing forges community spirit quite like a serial killer in one's midst...The play's journalistic format — it meticulously recreates the actual speech of residents interviewed by Blythe ... yields abundant pleasures, even if its portrait of cheerful neighbourliness built in the shadow of violent death is an unsettling one...These aren't orthodox song lyrics; these are demotic utterances, set to music with every "um", malapropism and repetition intact ... The effect can be highly comical, even if... because these are real people... one doesn't always feel comfortable laughing. And there are moments when the inarticulacy gets frustrating. It's left to Cork's songs to do the dramatic spadework, mining the impersonal interviews for emotional substance ... But even Cork's music can't make a TV reporter's faulty technology exciting, nor the results of the local flower show. At such times, we're reminded that the conventionally dramatic parts of this story are happening offstage ... There are sacrifices to be made, then, in staging a musical that's all chorus and no leading roles ... Few thoughts are spared for prostitutes living or dead, as public spirit blooms in the wake of Wright's crimes. It's a happy ending for London Road... but with troubling implications for the rest of us.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"London Road has already attracted controversy...The decision to dramatise and set to music elements of the fallout from Wright's crimes has been condemned by support groups and some of the victims' families. That's not surprising...It is a subtle and affecting work - a tribute to the possibilities of the National Theatre Studio, in which playwrights and composers are brought together in unlikely conjunctions ... Although described as a musical, it's better thought of as a poem laced together with melodies. Composer Adam Cork has come up with ingenious ways of presenting the observations captured in Blythe's recordings ... The main characters are the green-fingered members of the Neighbourhood Watch. The ensemble is inspired; the performances are unshowy, melding into a captivating whole. More than 60 roles are played by 11 actors; the standouts are Kate Fleetwood, Michael Shaeffer and Nicola Sloane...Rufus Norris directs with great style and sensitivity, and the entire creative team triumphs - with particular plaudits due to dialect coach Jeannette Nelson...It won't be to everyone's taste: it's often low-key and in places deliberately bumbling or raw. But this is a fresh, unsettling vision of a kind of ordinariness that rarely gets put on stage ... It is a brave experiment for the National Theatre, a stirring celebration of the vernacular - and a startling, magically original success.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"The murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich at the end of 2006, and the impact on the immediate community, might not sound like ideal material for a new musical. The mother of one of the victims has already expressed her displeasure at "making money" from the tragedy in such a way ... But London Road... the street where the convicted murderer Steve Wright, dubbed 'the Suffolk strangler', rented a room for 10 weeks... is something very special indeed. It's a compassionate study in how the neighbours pull together and restore their environment around the boarded-up No 79 with tea parties and flower shows ... All the words are the product of the verbatim theatre methods of writer Alecky Blythe, who usually has the actors fed the actual words she recorded through ear-pieces, as they deliver them. I usually find this gimmicky and distracting. But in this instance, the ear-pieces are gone and the cast, which rehearsed with the devices, merely reproduce the evidence in the performances. The result is an alive and richly flavoured text ... One minute the cast is singing within a labyrinth of blue-and-white police tape, imprisoned in their own street; the next minute, the performers are lining up as rival newshounds awaiting the verdict ... Doubters can be assured there is no "cashing in" on the tragedy, rather a deep, abiding sadness that it happened at all, and even a slight, knowingly shameful admission that something good has come out of it: a reborn community and a renewal of civic pride in an area that became unjustly known as a red-light district when Ipswich Town left Portman Road for a new stadium elsewhere.”

Patrick Marmion
Daily Mail

Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s unusual show inspired (if that’s the right word) by the story of Steve Wright, who murdered five women during Christmas 2006, says a lot about how we cope with shocking crimes ... Blythe reproduces verbatim quotes from local people ... It’s all fastidiously recorded by Blythe and magnified by Cork’s restless music, which seeks to bottle the stumbling local vernacular ... And although you never lose sight of the awfulness of the crimes, it is the resilient spirit of the townsfolk which is celebrated here. One abiding impression is made by Kate Fleetwood as Julie, the Neighbourhood Watch events organiser, who devised the ‘in bloom’ idea, which gives rise to the show’s endearingly quaint overture ‘begonias, petunias and, erm, impatiens and things’.

Simon Edge
Daily Express

"News that the National was making a play out of the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006 and then setting it to music caused understandable alarm ... The good news is that this well-intentioned and original piece is full of warmth, wit and subtlety, and is about as far from crass exploitation as you can get. Nor is it a musical ... There is barely a song here, let alone a dance. It's more a kind of sound collage, repeating words and building phrases up into a crescendo to show how ordinary speech has a rhythm of its own. Nor is it exploitative, because the murderer and his victims do not appear ... Through their moans and gripes we relive the nitty-gritty of a murder scene - arc lights coming through your windows, seeing yourself looking through your own curtains on television, not getting any post because you're living inside a police cordon. With Rufus Norris's direction and Katrina Lindsay's simple but inventive design, it's often funny and always enthralling. The dead women are the elephants in the room ... The power of the play is that it asks us to examine our own feelings in her place - do we really have the right to throw the first stone?"

- Rebecca Black


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