I would have dearly liked to have seen London Road by Alecky Blythe (book and lyrics) and Adam Cork (music and lyrics) live at the National Theatre so I was pleased to catch up with the film adaption, a BBC production that has been touring cinema’s this summer. Advertisements declare it features the original cast but while as far as I can gather the stage show was very much an ‘ensemble piece’, some ‘stars’ have been added to the film version in the shape of Olivia Coleman, Anita Dobbs and Tom Hardy in major roles. Equally, on film the number of performers has swelled from 11 to 60.
London Road (on stage and on screen) has attracted a great deal of interest because it is claimed to be the first ‘verbatim musical’ As many readers will be aware, verbatim refers to a mode of documentary theatre often, as in the case of this production, based on interviews with individuals or groups of people and sometimes on transcripts of high profile trials or public inquiries. While the source material is usually edited in some way, and to a greater or lesser degree ‘dramatised’, the term verbatim signifies the faithful rendering of the content and quality of individual’s speech, including the repetitions, hesitations, ums, ahs, and ers of everyday conversation. This technique is often accompanied by a style of acting which leans towards the performer ‘presenting’ the person they are playing, rather than attempting to fully re-present or impersonate them. This is because emerging as a distinctive form somewhere around the early 1990s, verbatim has been strongly associated with socially or politically aware drama, with celebrated examples including US based Anna Deveavre Smith’s Fire in the Mirror, reflecting on the 1991 Los Angeles Riots and Richard Norton Taylors The Colour of Justice (1999) based on the MacPherson inquiry into the police handling of the investigation of the murderer of Stephen Lawrence. Within such productions verbatim techniques and presentational acting are intended to function as ‘distancing devices’, with the aim being to let the material speak for itself so as to encourage the audience to form its own conclusions.
The theme of London Road, which touches on the brutal murder of five women in Ipswich in 2005, is consistent with this tradition of verbatim theatre and makes mixing this approach with musical theatre; a genre usually associated with fantasy, escapism and emotional identification, an even bolder move. Actually, even in its West End and Broadway incarnations musical theatre has often embraced serious social and political issues albeit not necessarily explored in any depth or to any significant effect. Nevertheless, as a genre it is far more diverse formally and thematically than often assumed and the success not just of London Road but of works like Lisa Kron’s Fun Home (2012) on Broadway may signal a new era of innovation.
The focus of this production is not on the murdered women but on the inhabitants of London Road which, geographically, was at the centre of events in so far as Steve Wright who was convicted of their killing was found to be living in a rented flat on that street, and because it was also used as a pitch by local sex-workers; the profession shared by all of Wright’s victims. Blythe started interviewing residents in Ipswich before any arrests were made, returning to focus on those living in London Road later as events unfolded. The film then covers local resident’s reaction and that of the media during and after the police investigation and trial, offering their perspective on events and charting their ‘recovery’ as a community, symbolised by their participation in a ‘London Road in Bloom’ competition which furnishes the ‘happy ending’ usually required by musicals for this film.
This is a carefully crafted, intriguing piece of work that is all the more thought provoking because it is also entertaining. The music is more pared down Sondheim/contemporary operetta than Lloyd Webberian lush romanticism, and the verbatim techniques continue into the musical numbers, with ums and ahs becoming a form of lyrical punctuation. In the context of the portrayal of a ‘real life’ story, what is most striking is the sometimes stark contrast between the energy and exuberance of the singing and the import of the words, or actions being referenced. In fact, this contrast combined with the use of verbatim techniques sometimes verges on producing a comic effect that left me a little uneasy. Perhaps partly due to the presence of star performers, there was sometimes a sense that the residents are being treated with a certain ironic distance and even slightly stereotyped in a fashion that recalls examples of ‘reality tv’ where the drive towards creating a ‘good story’ with a clear ‘narrative arc’, can be at the expense of its subjects as individuals. This is not just because that some of attitudes expressed in London Road by residents about local sex-workers are highly questionable, even shocking but relates to the way the way the sustained close up can so easily objectify or create a sense of intrusive exposure. As such this may be an issue with the film rather than the stage version with its actual spatial sense of distance from those portrayed. Either way in this instance the mix of verbatim with musical, in combination with the way the filmic style, created an ambiguity concerning ‘genre’ and an ambivalence on the part of its creators that was uncomfortable
The positioning of the local sex-workers within the film is especially troubling. While a recurring presence on the street they are always at the margins, anonymous, impassive and unreadable. There is only one scene in which they speak, and the focus in mainly on the impact the murders had in terms of getting help for their drug habits. It would be unreasonable to insist that Blythe should have concentrated on these figures or on the women who were murdered; the story being told is valid and interesting one. Further, the marginalised position of the sex-workers in the frame of the picture as painted might be read as a deliberate and critical comment on their position both within this particular community and within larger society. This is especially marked in the closing scenes when the residents celebrate the transformation of the street and reaffirmation of their community, while one of these women watches from a distance, isolated and unnoticed except by a single child. Nevertheless, the fact is that their only speech does mainly focus on drugs and their otherwise silent witnessing of events leaves them defined only by their occupation as ‘sex-workers’. As a result, I could not help recall how during the murder investigation and trial media reportage constantly referred to the murder victims as ‘prostitutes’, rather than simply women, in a way that signified a whole world of prejudice, hypocrisy and misogyny. Perhaps, this is indeed one of the points the film is intended to make, or rather one of the conclusions it invites its spectators to draw from the material we are shown. But in the end, in terms of the portrayal of both the residents and the sex workers I’m not so sure that this piece might not confirm certain class and gender prejudices.
London Road is a fascinating experiment and well worth seeing but I think with some types of content demand that the means of expression includes a sense of the creators’ own standpoint in regard to the material, in a way that seems lacking in this film.