London Road, a fascinating, um, verbatim musical hits Toronto
As the collected works of Agatha Christie demonstrate, crime and scandal never fail to pique interest when stoked by gossip, conjecture, and the press. So many of Christie's novels, set in quiet English towns, examine how the surrounding community responds to a violent social transgression.
Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork's London Road resonates with the themes of the English novelist but in a wildly inventive fashion, the play's dialogue is verbatim -- having been originally recorded from interviews with the community connected to the Ipswich murders -- and is performed to music,. As startling as it is entertaining, London Road is a triumph of both theatrical form and content.
Blythe captured extensive interviews with the townspeople of Ipswich, a quiet village in Suffolk where a forklift driver named Steve Wright murdered five sex workers in 2006. The interviews have been molded into scenes which document the arrest and trial, as well as the process of making the community feel whole again. Through repetition, choral phrasing, and overt emphasis, Cork reworks the dialogue into music.
My previous contention with verbatim theatre has been that presentations of real-world speech on stage completely re-appropriate the tone, meaning, and authenticity of those first utterances. The most remarkable discovery is that Blythe, director Jackie Maxwell, and the talented ensemble have worked incredibly hard to mimic, and in fact embody, the very cadence and pattern of the original speakers.
The effect is mesmerizing. Each scene presents a vibrant narrative and musical puzzle, where phrases like "very, very nervous" and "automatically think it could be him" echo and chill. Blythe should be commended for understanding the complexities of re-presenting the testimony of her subjects and the link between word and sound.
As Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, Maxwell has experience working with ensembles and it serves her well with this production. Scenes that feature all eleven performers are layered and rich, especially the journalist chorus at the show's climax. While the denouement starts and stops, Maxwell is able to highlight the contradictions inherent in the townspeople's good will.
The one scene that doesn't quite come together features three sex workers who lament the loss of their livelihood in the face of the murders. It's the only case where the sensitive nature of the real world material seems far too difficult to adapt, feeling clunky in both in staging and score.
The ensemble inhabits a wide range of characters, each with their own association to the tragedy. In both characterization and choral song, the group excels at presenting the layered and complex reaction from the community. Damien Atkins and Fiona Reid are two of the stand outs.
Blythe and Cork are advancing an exciting new way of storytelling. London Road is a production that foregrounds the power of live performance in its measured and thoughtful approach to the spoken word.
London Road, by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork and directed by Jackie Maxwell, runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre until February 9.