Every once in a while, something brand spanking new hits the London theatre scene. It happens rarely and, when it does, the critics get (understandably) excited. London Road is unlike anything I, or probably you, have seen before. It is verbatim theatre, but it is ‘complemented’ by discordant, jolting music. It is visually astonishing. And, although there’s an awful lot of singing about flowers, it’s actually about the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich.
I’m rarely a fan of jointly composed plays but Alecky Blythe’s book and Adam Cork’s music combine to extraordinary effect. The text patches together a slew of interviews held with the Ipswich inhabitants, whose lives and homes were enshrouded by the murders. All the hesitations and quirks of everyday speech have been retained and the resulting snapshots are thickly textured and effortlessly varied. This idiosyncratic text is accompanied by equally disjointed music. A piano (played live) beats teasingly as the cast – sometimes in union but often scattered and clashing – sing our their staccato stories.
Music is often used to soothe in theatre but here it threatens. As the citizens discuss the impact of the murders, the melody judders along in odd harmony. Every song has a potent flavour. The reporters sing assuredly but their harmonies feel thin, even silly. When the residents discover the trial is to take place in their hometown, their disappointment is set amidst a Bingo Hall; their vaguely lyrical groans, as they lose at gambling, chime in with their general displeasure. And, when the couples combine in choral praise of their new venture – The London Road in Bloom Flower Show – their triumphal song has a hollow ring. The songs and statements clash powerfully, creating strange fissures that burn with emotion.
Many have been quick to compare the Ipswich couples with Creature Comforts but there’s a cruel edge to this green-fingered troupe. Deep into the play, Kate Fleetwood (always so full of frightening possibility), as Events Organiser June, confesses her sympathy for the killer. He did, after all, make their streets look ‘tidier’. ‘I’d like to shake him by the hand,’ she sighs wistfully. It is a chilling moment, hinting that this desire to flood the streets with colourful flowers might be masking more than just murderers.
Indeed, the whole production unsettles. Despite the exquisite synchronisation of the cast, nothing quite adds up. The strange and oblique images (the visuals often take a side step from the main action) cement the nagging feeling that something is not quite right. Flowers float up from urns, a massive Santa replica flashes threateningly and police tape wraps itself tightly around the residents. Distrust and darkness ooze from every pore of this production, digging its claws into the citizens and spectators alike.