Skip to main content
theatre review

Deborah Hay, Damien Atkins and Fiona Reid in London Road.David Hou

London Road is an extraordinary experiment in live art, at turns uplifting and upsetting. A surprise hit at Britain's National Theatre, this documentary musical takes an unfortunately commonplace event – a horrible crime committed in a small community, turned into an international media frenzy – and puts actual interviews through enough filters that the familiar seems utterly strange. Indeed, you may never listen to the world the same way again.

The play by writer Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork centres on the town of Ipswich, England, around the time that five sex workers were killed there in quick succession in 2006.

How the show was created needs some explaining: Blythe went to Ipswich to record the locals – and particularly the residents of London Road, unsuspecting neighbours of Steve Wright, the man eventually charge and convicted with the murders. Then, she created a script out of edited transcripts, being sure to include all the hesitations and coughs (she's a practitioner of an extreme form of what's known as verbatim theatre).

What differentiates London Road from other plays of this type, however, is that Cork took cues from the interview subjects' speech rhythms and the musicality hidden in their Suffolk accents to transform what they said into songs, repeating certain lines to create something resembling verses and choruses.

At times, London Road reminded me of Theatre Replacement's warped adventures playing around with interview theatre; of Glenn Gould's audio collage for CBC Radio; and even of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, another musically adventurous exploration of a not entirely unsympathetic monster in a small British town.

Ultimately, however, I must admit that London Road is like nothing I have ever heard before – and that is what makes it such a thrilling theatrical experience.

Under the heroic musical direction of Reza Jacobs, a cast of 10 all-stars from the Shaw and Stratford Festivals (accompanied by an eight-person orchestra) make this Canadian Stage production, the North American premiere of a much-discussed piece, an acoustically riveting experience – I hung on every note and word. Visually, director Jackie Maxwell gives us the story fairly straightforwardly, tableau by tableau; everything is supremely well acted, with too many fine, quirky performances to point out individually.

While the progression from crime to arrest to trial to conviction gives a natural arc to the show, London Road is more of a song cycle than a cohesive musical – with 62 characters in total, many of whom come on stage for a moment and then disappear.

In one scene in a coffee shop, Deborah Hay and Glynis Ranney play a pair of teenage girls describing how they now look at men on the street. "You automatically think it could be him," sings one. "Yeah," sings the other. Underscored by sharp synth, punctuated by creepy arpeggiated laughs, this refrain seems at first hysterical, then hilarious and after enough repetition begins to sound like some sort of eternal truth. The theme of the evening is that, yes, it could be him – or her, or you – that we're all off-beat creatures in some way or another.

This is further underlined in a subsequent sung conversation in a pub between a self-proclaimed expert on serial killers (Ben Carlson) and a couple his football chums (Steve Ross and Sean Arbuckle). They joke and jostle about, saying the kind of off-colour things that if tweeted would lose you your job. You may find yourself cycling through sympathy (these guys are just trying to get through a terrible situation with humour) to outrage (how can they be so callous?) and back again.

Laughter erupts regularly from the audience during the show, not due to what characters are saying, but in recognition of the familiar ways in which they say it – the half-finished sentences, the interruptions, the pauses – made strange by the music and reprises.

Beneath an at times heartwarming depiction of community, however, sits the awful subject matter. I think London Road's great strength, and what makes it challenging, is how frighteningly ambiguous Blythe and Cork keep the show's tone.

"Sex workers" and other euphemisms are banished, as are journalistic cliches. There's a brilliant sequence featuring Damien Atkins as a television reporter struggling to write an update on Wright's trial for a noon-hour newscast. "Can't use the word 'semen' at lunchtime and I can't use it at 6 o'clock," he sings in frustration. "I can use it at 10 o'clock, but I can't use it before teatime."

Blythe is at war with the way the media (professional or social) flattens language, and thus the complexity of a community such as Ipswich. As an interviewer herself, however, she gives her subjects enough rope to hang themselves with.

Fiona Reid, for instance, plays a perfectly sympathetic woman, who organizes a contest to decorate London Road with flowers – and who then, in a spoken passage, says something so utterly horrendous it elicited gasps from the audience. Blythe and Cork are in love with the English language, but seemingly little else about the English.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck