Friday, August 26, 2011

Review of London Road at the National Theatre, August 2011

Book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe, Lyrics and music by Adam Cork.

In 2006, a part-time truck driver named Steven Wright rented a house on London Road in Ipswich and proceeded to murder five prostitutes working nearby.  He was ultimately found guilty in a jury trial and is serving time in prison. This musical tells the story of  Wright's murders entirely through scripts of interviews with actual residents of London Road.  It is the legacy of Anna Deveare Smith, in that it is composed entirely of first person commentary.  It is the legacy of Sarah Kane because the language sung, the music sparse and enhancing the inherent musicality of the language, is meant to wash over you.  It is multitudinous and inaccessible except as some new kind of noise.  (The musicality of the language is dependent upon the severe country accent of the Ipswich dwellers. One of my companions was a woman from Singapore who found it impossible to believe that English really was spoken with such distortions and assumed it was a creation of the playwright.  Sweet heart, I said, welcome to England).  It was so rich and complex I found myself wondering how the musical form would ever  go back to the likes of Les Mis. 

This is an amazing work of art and everyone should see it.  A cast of twelve plays a bossy woman intent on creating a gardening competition to give London Road a better reputation, the prostitutes, the police, the reporters, the photographers and an affable man heading up the local neighborhood watch.   It is seamless.  The choices made by the writer created a mesmerizingly intelligent picture of the real London Road:  the neighbours were quite excited by the whole thing and enjoyed it, and deep down, they were glad that the prostitutes weren't going out on London Road anymore.  Of course, the interview scripts don't say that clearly, that is something that comes across gently, partially hidden, something that only an audience listening to the same words spoken over and over could tease out, could interpret.  This is a musical told in subtext.

Much of it reminds me of Walker Percy's book Lost in the Cosmos:  the idea that it is fun and interesting to witness or be a part of something big and transgressive, much more interesting than our normal dull lives, so we feel more alive.  Suicide rates, they say, go to zero in a hurricane.  

The best musical number is based on two women being interviewed. They talk about what it was like to go into town shopping during the murders.  They are standing at a bus stop.  Their eyes stray on a man and they say:  "You automatically think it could be him."  The ominous repetition of this phrase reminded me of all those scary walks late at night in my life.  It is accompanied by a nervous laugh and cascading into it are the other women of the company.  It is worth the price of the ticket to see that alone.

By the intermission, my other friend was shaking his head about the banality of the neighbour's concerns. I found it at the same time amazing and boring to consider and reconsider the messages behind the banality.  Because in taking the time to consider it, I eventually saw how none of the characters are actually very wise, and all (as are we all) are blind to themselves. 

There was throughout an amazing lack of empathy for the victims and a unsurprising obsession with property values on the street of a serial murderer (described by Sky as the Red Light district of Ipswich).  The acting was unobstrusive, as were the songs, a kind of minimalism that would sneak up on you.  Absorbing.  

That is what I love about this kind of art, this hyper-real form that makes you revisit reality more and more, kind of a chance for a slow-motion replay.  Our gardening hero is separately interviewed near the end, and says she wishes she could shake Steven Wright's hand and thank him.  Because those prostitutes were nasty and for years she had been calling the police on them.  At the very very end of the play, the gardening woman, with her property value intact, the murderer in jail, the gardening competition in glorious bloom, cries happy tears as the local paper gets its photograph as she exclaims how wonderful it was to have people share their gardens.  Which is what none of them would do with the poor and tired drug addicts who sold themselves and who Steve Wright preyed on.

Walker Percy also liked to say that sentimentalism - like the tears of the gardener - leads straight to the gas chamber.  This work has considered this connection.  I think there's a pretty good chance it will move to someplace small in NY and if it does, please go.  And please see it at the National if you can.  

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