London Road BOVTS at Bristol Old Vic Studio

BRISTOL Old Vic Theatre School’s production of London Road is quite extraordinary. The story, both shocking and true, deals with the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006, or, to be more precise, the effect these murders had on the residents of the street where they took place; it focuses very much on the community as opposed to the crime. Tough stuff, but what makes this piece of theatre so astonishing is that, unlikely as it may seem, it has been turned into an award-winning musical. In this truly remarkable work, the words, be they spoken or sung, are almost entirely those of real people, the actual residents of London Road, complete with the original rhythms, hesitations, repetitions and mispronounciations. On reading director Nicholas Bone’s very interesting notes in the programme, I discovered that this is known as verbatim theatre. In London Road, all the words, down to the last “um” and “er”, were captured by playwright Alecky Blythe during a series of recorded interviews, to become the raw material for the melodic speech patterns that form the basis of composer Adam Cork’s compelling score.

I have been to many, many musicals, but never to anything quite like this. There was little dancing, spectacle and fun for a start, and it took me a while to get into it all, not having done my homework beforehand. But it was not long before I was completely hooked and absolutely fascinated to learn how the piece had been put together. How I wish I had been part of (or even party to) the creative process. On the first day of rehearsal, for example, the actors were not given scripts, but instead wore headphones which fed them their lines from Blythe’s original recordings. They were then expected to repeat them back until they were in perfect synchronisation with the original speaker.

Once Cork’s music had been added the result was electrifying. Spoken dialogue seamlessly melted into solo song, duets or trios, with their insistent repetitive phrases, were transformed into larger ensemble numbers. And every little nuance of those original recordings had been captured by the company who spoke and sung music that was both simple and amazingly complex with split second exactness. Whether they were all singing the same words or whether they were delivering part of a more intricate polyphony, where three or four different rhythmic and melodic lines were weaving in and out of each other, the effect was that of precision engineering.

The various characters that the company of twelve actors play were so totally believable that it would be quite invalid to single out any particular performance. This was a team effort if ever there was one. Ron, Rosemary, Julie, Helen and the other residents of London Road came across with humanity and even humour at times, and through the singing in particular we were drawn further and further into their lives. We could identify with their fears and suspicions, shared the sense of excitement felt by many, were outraged at media intrusion and were fully understanding of their feelings of guilt or whatever.

As a showcase for theatrical talent, London Road is an ideal piece, and in Nicholas Bone’s outstanding production there is clearly talent in abundance. Yes, the show was slick, it was clever, it was choreographed down to the last detail and clearly rehearsed with military precision, but yet there was nothing stagey or in any way artificial about it; writing this review I find it hard to reconcile what should be, on the surface at least, two incompatibles.

Central to the success of the production was the very fine six piece band under the direction of Pamela Rudge. They performed with the same sensitivity and meticulous precision as the actors. The scoring was particularly effective too, and worthy of special mention as it gave rise to a surprising variety of instrumental tone colour. Although the position of the band must have caused a few headaches, balance between actors and musicians was generally good and only rarely were the all-important words lost.

Visually, there was little to distract from the actors and the production was, by and large, pretty seamless although a little additional music might have helped smooth over some of the scene changes. I also might have tried to do something with the very noisy and largely unnecessary back curtain.

I for one have never experienced anything quite like London Road so it maybe that the production was just a bit too odd or a bit too clever for some in the audience – the young lady next to me certainly seemed more interested in her Doritos and texting her friends than she was in the action on the stage. But for me at least this was as intelligent, uplifting and original a piece of theatre as one could hope to see. Definitely five stars. London Road runs until 21st June.


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