National Theatre. Its very name implies it should reflect life in communities all across the nation. It also has a remit to challenge and provoke thought.
In its latest production, London Road, a verbatim play with music based on interviews with Suffolk residents coming to terms with their road becoming infamous for the home of serial killer Steve Wright, the National Theatre have produced a piece that not only challenges but stands strong as a piece of theatre on its own merit.
In autumn 2006, the normally quiet market town of Ipswich was thrust into the world’s media spotlight as five women were abducted from the town’s red light district and, one by one, their bodies were subsequently discovered in the surrounding areas. This small community was in a state of shock as the speed of the serial killings took the police, the town and the media by surprise. Five years on and the scars of Ipswich’s darkest hour still run deep.
Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London road fuses Blythe’s interviews with local residents with an evocative musical score to take a look at a community struggling to recover after horrific events beyond their control. Although of course set against the backdrop of the five murders the victims themselves are not portrayed on stage, instead we focus on the residents of London Road as they try and rebuild their fractured community.
It could easily turn into voyeuristic bad taste and, while for anyone who lived through the events of 2006, it will be uncomfortable viewing, it does prove to be a hauntingly moving look at the wider impact of this crime.
As the London Road Neighbourhood Watch team reforms to improve the area, their good intentions are overtaken by the fast moving events happening in the town. As the climate of fear builds in the town, suspicion turns on neighbours with women across the town fearing ‘it could be him’. As Christmas preparations fall flat and the world media descends on the town, focus turns to 79 London Road and its resident of the last 10 weeks, Steve Wright. As Wright is charged and then convicted on five counts of murder, the residents face an uphill battle to remove the ghoulish stigma their road has unwittingly obtained.
The testimony of the residents provides the text for the piece and it’s therefore raw and emotive. Cork sets this dialogue against a rich score but the music never overpowers, eschewing traditional song structure in favour of repeated choral number, cannon and underscore the score provides emotional score that blends into the whole.
The 11-strong ensemble portray not only the residents of London Road but a multitude of characters from across the town, all using verbatim words collected by Blythe during numerous visits to town. This approach does provide a real sense of authenticity and soul bearing and the ensemble work well to bring these multiple voices to light.
Rufus Norris’ directs with an almost cinematic style, focusing in on individual close ups when needed before opening up to the wider community.
There are some genuinely disturbing moments in the work. Three girls emerging slowly from a shadowy fog talking after the murders about their change in working practices merging into a long silence that seems to hang in the air for an eternity genuinely provides reflection while one characters declaration that she would like to shake Steve Wright’s hand to thank him for cleaning up their community illicit a palpable intake of breath.
Overall, though, London Road doesn’t judge or offer explanation. Instead, by focusing on the residents, it provides an insight into the power of community and, by harnessing that spirit, how the darkest moments can ultimately provide the inspiration for hope and change.
Yes, as someone who lived through that turbulent time, it is uncomfortable viewing but, ultimately, isn’t theatre there to challenge, move and stimulate? It may stir painful memories but, as a piece of theatre with the power to reflect actual lives, London Road excels. The controversy remains and many would like this period in Suffolk’s history to be closed.
It may still be too soon but let’s hope that London Road eventually makes the trip to Suffolk to be performed locally. Its reflection on the wider impact of the events of December 2006 may help provide a sense of closure.