I had resisted Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s musical retelling of the events surrounding the murders of five women by serial killer Steven Wright in Ipswich in 2006, as my other half refused point blank to accompany me and it didn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs. Additionally the fact that all dialogue and lyrics are the result of Alecky Blythe’s “verbatim” documentary style of working and are drawn directly from taped interviews with the real people on which the characters are based alienated me even further. Unexpectedly though a £12 Travelex row B stalls ticket popped up on a rainy Wednesday afternoon when I had bugger all else to do, so I thought I may as well take a punt and see what all the fuss is about. After all, it did win the 2011 Critics’ Circle Best Musical and has transferred from the tiny Cottesloe to the vast Olivier. The current cast also includes a couple of my favourite West End leading ladies, Claire Moore and Linzi Hateley.
On the Olivier’s large stage a Neighbourhood Watch meeting commences, chaired by Kate Fleetwood’s Julie who proposes a “London Road in Bloom” competition in an attempt to nurture the fragile community relationships and cleanse the area of its’ “red light district” reputation which has grown since the arrest of the resident of number 79, Steven Wright, for the murders of five women, all of whom were working as prostitutes on London Road.
We flashback to the initial discovery of the bodies and the next two hours takes us through two years in the lives of the residents of London Road and the investigation into the murders.
It is quite simply one of the best theatrical events I have ever witnessed. Almost operatic in its reach, the cadences, pauses and stumblings of the original interviewees are present, correct and celebrated which, with the use of repetition, adds an almost percussive quality to the sung dialogue. There are also plenty of laugh out loud moments and one genuinely shocking sharp intake of breath admission from Julie once Wright has been found guilty. It’s a little like a post watershed Creature Comforts The Musical.
We hear the concerns of the residents for their homes and their families, once blighted by the presence of prostitutes, now free of the working girls but with a murderer in their midst. Once the fear has gone, the dreadful events do the unimaginable and unite a community, inspiring neighbours to make friends with one another and to work together to create a better environment in which to live.
The simple staging, with dark armchairs and sofas, Julian Opie style life size sculptures and a huge ominous bay window above echoing those of the houses on London Road, is supplemented with effective devices such as the use of police tape to divide the inhabitants once the police and press have descended on the area and the road has been cordoned off. There is the most sinister light festooned Santa looming above the action at Christmas and a simply gorgeous final scene during the judging of “London Road in Bloom” when the auditorium and stage are filled with bountiful hanging baskets.
Despite it being an ensemble piece with an extraordinarily accomplished cast, Kate Fleetwood, who plays Julie along with several other roles, deserves singling out for special praise, as she engages the audience, sometimes with a glance, often addressing us directly, in a brutally honest truthful manner. She is also one of a trio of former prostitutes who emerge from the shadows towards the end of the second act and stare unblinkingly at us for several long uncomfortable minutes before relating how the murders have impacted on their lives.
Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork have pushed the form forward and this is truly musical theatre for the 21st century. With a faultless cast, sure footed direction from Rufus Norris and beautifully effective design from Katrina Lindsay, this is a special piece of theatre that I know I will remember always.
Booking until 6 September 2012, call it what you will, drama-documentary-musical-opera, it is simply one of the best theatrical events I have ever witnessed - London Road