It’s not often you get the opportunity to revisit a production, a year apart. Last year on press night for London Road in the Cottesloe theatre, the atmosphere was electric; a sense that we were witnessing a new direction for musical theatre. A year on and the production has transferred to the larger, neighbouring Olivier theatre. Something in the transfer, however, seems to have gone awry as, what was a moving and poignant piece in the small, intimate studio space, becomes somewhat lost and overblown in the expanse of the open stage.
In the interests of openness the reviewer needs to declare an interest here. As someone who lived in Ipswich at the time of the events portrayed in the piece, London Road was always going to have a deeper impact than your general audience member.
Alecky Blythe’s verbatim interviews with Ipswich residents at the time of the murders of five Ipswich women could easily become macabre and voyeuristic but her decision to focus on the residents of London Road, a location murderer Steve Wright had only lived for 10 short weeks, moves the piece in a different direction. Wright and his victims never appear, and are only fleetingly named, but their impact is felt on the residents of the road. The media appetite for images to feed the rolling news feeds imprisons the residents and their efforts to rebuild their shattered community provides a genuine uplifting ending but it’s a dark, unsettling couple of hours.
Or at least it was. In the move to the larger stage, the performances seem to have been expanded to fill the space and as such often come across as caricatures rather than the real-life characters captured in Blythe’s recordings. When the audience begin laughing at the opening scene and only really stop to reflect on the tragedy of events when a character says she’d like to shake the killer’s hand and thank him for ridding her road of the sex workers, you know something is seriously wrong.
Scenes that had a claustrophobic, almost menacing, feel in the studio now seem swamped by the space around them and, while Adam Cork’s rhythmic, overlapping cadences for his score impress, the heart of the piece is lost. On second viewing it’s also more apparent that, despite learning the piece from Blythe’s original recordings, the Suffolk accents veer wildly from Norfolk, via Somerset and at times even seem to settle in mid-Wales.
There are still some chilling moments. A long moment of silence as former sex workers explain how they have stopped working the streets still chills, as does the aforementioned recognition of some residents wanting to thank Wright. Overall, though, one can’t help wondering how many watching this production for the first time emotionally connect with the story behind the show or, indeed, how many recognise it is actually based upon real events.
To stage such a show in 2011 was a bold and brave move by the National theatre and, at the time, although uncomfortable for this reviewer it was a decision I applauded and rewarded with a 5-star review. In 2012 something has changed; it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly but the desire to bring the piece to a larger stage has sacrificed its power.
Originally written for The Public Reviews