Cottesloe, National Theatre, London
14 April – 27 September 2011
If David Cameron were looking for an example of the big society in action, he may need look no further than the close-knit community of London Road, an otherwise unremarkable street in Ipswich, Suffolk. In late 2006, a group of previously disparate residents had come together in the most unlikely circumstances to forge new bonds in their community in the aftermath of tragedy.
Over November and December 2006, fork-lift truck driver Steve Wright terrorised this usually genteel town, murdering five prostitutes who worked in the red-light district; the consequent manhunt triggering the biggest inquiry evermounted by Suffolk Police – and the attention of the world's media. The extraordinary spotlight cast on London Road soon began to bring together the street's residents more often - a thriving annual flowers in bloom competition, a Neighbourhood Watch and a quiz night. All this attracted the attention of a writer, Аlecky Blythe, who began to spend a lot of time with the still emotionally sore locals, somewhat ironically employing a form of journalism that would later translate her conversations with them to the stage.
Blythe deserves much praise along with composer Adam Cork for the uniquely faithful yet sensitive setting of the residents' spoken words to music. If that sounds like a tall order in the context of the Ipswich tragedy, it has paid off tremendously. The conventions of the traditional musical are thrown aside to remarkable effect. Every intonation, flaw and variation of dialect is captured, often humorously, sometimes bittersweet. The audience, from the very beginning has been invited into the story, with the opening bars of “Hello, welcome” and the shaking of hands of those in the front rows, spoken to music by the character of Ron, the Neighbourhood Watch chair. And while initially it is odd to hear the openings to musical 'numbers' with lines such as “Yeah, s’quite an unpleasant feeling, everyone is very, very nervous …erm …”, the overall effect is captivating. In the words of Cork, “the choral presentation of this story in particular seems to underline the ritual aspect of human experience”. It is a story about deep, centuries-old aspects of the human condition – in which the usual societal boundaries have been broken down because London Road needs to heal itself.
London Road will no doubt set the standard for a bold, fresh new take on the musical genre for years to come, and will undoubtedly encourage audiences to question what is being presented to them. We experience an honest portrayal of civic society's desire to improve its sense of community; that isn't just borne out of meddling by liberal 'do-gooders'. The residents act out of a desire for self-protection, a human reaction to shovel life's nasties away out of sight. But, for all the lighter moments and the sympathy imparted by the audience for a group of people whose lives have been invaded, a reflection by one character towards the end remarks disturbingly on Wright's crimes: “I'm glad they're gone – I could shake him by the hand for what he did”. Ominously, the prostitutes themselves feature just once in the entire production – standing silently on the stage in a poignant moment of quiet reflection. Do we question the girls' plight and the residents' reaction to it? Yes – and that's what makes this production work, because we are not fed the warts-and-all detail of their deaths.
Through the authentic, choral representation of its residents, the success of London Road is a reminder that occasionally, stronger society can come out of tragedy. And, if we had any doubt as to the motives of those behind this production, over £25,000 was raised for the Iceni Project over the course of the show's run – a real life charity helping Ipswich prostitutes and their families in dealing with drug and alcohol problems.