Friday, 17 August 2012

London Road - review

Written by: Lils (@LilyKG)

National Theatre (Olivier), London

London Road has returned to The National Theatre, for a limited period, after its sell-out run last year. After having heard so much about the critically acclaimed production, I couldn’t wait to take my seat in the Olivier’s vast auditorium. I have to say, the prospect of experiencing a musical centred on the Ipswich serial murders of 2006 filled me with intrigue more than anything else – it struck me as an interesting medium through which to explore the remembrance of such a brutal event. If you’re filled with the same feeling, you should quench your curiosity with this refreshing production. It brings a whole new meaning to what we know as 'verbatim theatre'.

Firstly, it’s important to stress that the play focuses on the effects of the events on London Road and not on the murders themselves. This is not a murder mystery; it’s an accurate account of the residents’ responses to the case as it unravelled. Alecky Blythe (playwright and founder of Recorded Delivery Theatre Company) conducted and recorded interviews with the real residents and these recordings were, in turn, studied by the actors. They were never provided with scripts, but rather learned their lines by ear so as to preserve the musicality of the recorded speech; the results were quite remarkable. Every hesitation, interruption, every “um” and “ahh” was vocalised on stage and this made the characters spring to life as though they were speaking directly to you. The sheer volume of material and the apparent accuracy with which it was recounted was incredibly impressive; the inclusion of audio clips from the original interviews can verify the truthfulness of the vocal performances. However, although the script was astounding, the musical score was like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

Adam Cork (composer and co-lyricist) has managed to build the music around the pre-existing musicality of the interviews. The rhythm and melody is totally dictated by the spontaneous speech features that were present in the initial recordings and, on hearing the first song, it produced a fascinating result. The rhythms were irregular and unpredictable but, somehow, they worked brilliantly. He has masterfully picked out beautiful harmonies, which transform the chaos of these rhythms into a symphony of voices as every actor eventually contributes to a wall of sound. It’s totally bizarre, but it sends a tingle down your spine and you’re left wanting more and more. If there is any criticism, it’s that once you’ve heard this structure for the first four times, the recurrence of it does start to make the progression of each song quite predictable. Nevertheless, regardless of this relentless repetition, the originality of the score is a reason in itself to see this production.

The Olivier’s many capabilities can often tempt directors into exploiting every possible trick it possesses, which can detract from the work being displayed. Not this time, thankfully. Rufus Norris (director) has struck the perfect balance by using the rotating platform to facilitate scene changes, but steering clear of anything too flashy. The minimalist, stylised set was perfect for providing an ominous undertone whilst allowing the actors to paint the stage with their vibrant performances. With 63 characters to portray, the cast of 11 did extremely well to differentiate when multi-role playing. The switching was rapid and believable; Michael Shaeffer’s age seemed to fluctuate before our very eyes – his changes were that convincing!

There were moments of comedy, created by humorous characterisations and linguistic hiccups; and moments that chilled the auditorium into an icy silence. The latter effect was certainly achieved during the only scene in which we meet some of the remaining prostitutes of Ipswich and hear how they view the murders – a truly disquieting confrontation.

All in all, I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a production to be enjoyed, but I would certainly say that it’s one to be experienced. It’s not often that I can honestly say that a performance has left me reeling, but this is definitely one of those occasions. 

London Road runs until 6 September 2012. 

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