I planned to give LONDON ROAD a miss. The past few new works at the National have not been inspiring and on paper the show did not look promising. This week two friends in show business called me and said I must see it. Luckily I got a return. One could tell by the star-studded audience that there is a lot of talk about this show.
LONDON ROAD is not a conventional musical. Alecky Blythe, who wrote the book and some of the lyrics, is a devotee of documentary theatre -- work like THE LARAMIE PROJECT and the solo pieces by Anna DeVeare Smith. The playwright records people's conversations, then gives them to actors who listen to the recordings and learn to recreate not only the words but also the speech inflections of the recorded voices. Could this technique work for a musical? Could a composer create some sort of musical number out of verbatim dialogue. It couldn't be a conventional song that takes shaping of words into artificial patterns. The music had to come totally from the speech rhythms. Some opera composers have tried in their work to imitate actual speech - Moussorgsky and Janacek for instance. In fact, I was reminded at times of John Adams's work as I saw and heard London Road. All I can say is that in this instance, thanks to composer - co-lyricist Adam Cork the experiment works.
LONDON ROAD is the story of a working class neighborhood traumatized by the serial killings of five prostitutes almost on their doorstep by a man who lived on their street. The residents of Londn Road had seen their neighborhood go downhill as prostitutes started working in the neighborhood. The killing brought the residents notoriety (one report calls it a red light district). Their response was to come together as a comunity and improve the neighborhood. Their garden displays and competitions have become famous all over England. These people regained their pride in their street and made it attractive. It's a story of comunity pride.
There are no solos in LONDON ROAD. Every piece is an ensemble piece for the show is a celebration of community. The music and lyrics perfectly capture the denizens of the neighborhood. The numbers are very different from those in a conventional musical, but are genuinely moving.
Rufus Norris has staged the work simply and effectively -- his fine work has almost erased the memory of his godawful DON GIOVANNI at the English National Opera last fall. The cast, mostly made up of veteran London musical performers is perfect. The orchestrations and small band excellent.
LONDON ROAD is a unique work and a lovely one. From its sweet beginning with a stammering host welcoming people to a neighborhood association meeting (the audience is included in the welcome) to the final number in which residents take joy in their floral arrangements, the show totally holds one's rapt attention.
LONDON ROAD. National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre. May 27, 2011.