I'm not a massive fan of verbatim theatre -- that's the sort where actors reproduce the words of real people. It's a highly limited genre which often fails to rise above the level of mundane journalism. But within these limitations, I enjoyed London Road, which has just had its run at the National's Cottesloe theatre extended.
Writer Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork have forged something entertaining out of unpromising subject matter, in the shape of extended interviews with the residents of London Road, the 'red light district' of Ipswich that formed the backdrop to the murders of five prostitutes in 2006. These 'vox pop' interviews are irredeemably banal, but Cork's music and the lyrical repetition of lines turns them into something richer than the original material. When a line like 'This really is our first AGM' is repeated and sung, it becomes a kind of mantra. Blythe doesn't edit things out, so every cliche, every piece of padding, every 'definitely' and 'basically' and 'at the end of the day' stays in. There are some very funny scenes in which television reporters are also marooned in the land of cliches.
More than anything, this play reminded me of David Hare's The Permanent Way, a verbatim drama about the railways which was given a stunning production in the Cottesloe by Max Stafford-Clark that included a simulated train crash. As in that production, the play begins with a brief bonding exercise between actors and audience. 'Good evening, welcome', and those in the front row find their hands are being shaken as the cast recreate a community meeting, with plastic chairs, tea and biscuits.
There's kind mockery in the portrayal of these solid denizens of Ipswich, who between them seem to have solid sawdust between the ears. They are allowed to speak for themselves, with devastating results. When five bodies are found and it's clear a serial killer is on the loose, their collective response comes in Suffolk-ese, which lacks the biting wit of Liverpool or Glasgow. 'Everyone is very very nervous' and 'I'm going to, like, cry' are typical responses. 'Nothing ever happens in Suffolk,' one London Road resident complains. If the Second Coming were to happen in Ipswich, one feels the locals would have difficulty putting it into words.
It sounds awful, but the production is kept afloat by its music, deft timing, excellent acting by an ensemble, some original stage design, and a brisk pace. After a while the audience realises that the serial killer himself is going to feature only briefly; his five victims and their families get even shorter shrift, and aren't greatly missed. 'Why should we feel sorry for them?' one resident asks. 'They were a complete pain in the neck.'
By the second half, the 'prossies' have been ejected from London Road, the excitement of the trial has subsided, and the residents are now busy regenerating their road and getting to know each other, competing with hanging baskets of petunias as part of 'Ipswich in Bloom'. Unfortunately, the rigidity of the verbatim formula means that none of the characters gets the chance to emerge from the crowd as an individual. There is no conflict or rivalry between the group members, as in a play like Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters, where the writer uses imagination to create characters deeper and more resonant than their real-life originals. The sunny hanging-basket optimism which takes root on a soil fertilised by five grisly murders really needs the savage talents of a Sondheim to do it justice, but here the operatic quality created by Blythe's words and Cork's music only goes so far. It's like a show with only the chorus, not the principal singers.