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London Road, a Curtain Up London review
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A CurtainUp London London Review
London Road

We always say that we have to get the street tarted up and people always say that is not the right choice of words. — Chairman of the Neighbourhood Watch
London Road
Hal Warner as Terry (Photo: Helen Warner)
There are two remarkable things about the musical London Road showing at the National Theatre's Cottesloe. One is its subject matter, the reaction of a small town Suffolk community to a series of murders of five prostitutes in a very short space of time, just six weeks, and the other in the way the musical has been compiled by writer Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork , the composer, solely from the verbatim interviews of those involved.

What London Road does is to largely remove a concentration on who the victims were and the biography of the murderer but instead to highlight the reactions of people living in London Road, Ipswich to the impact of the discovery of the bodies, the police investigation and the attention of the media. Yes, it is all about THEM! As they focus on the gardening competition, using window boxes and hanging baskets to brighten up the houses in the street, they sing about gardenias and lilies, busy lizzies and petunias. Of course these lilies cover up the festering murders and smell far worse than weeds.

It is the juxtaposition of an operatic style and the repetition of simple, mundane lyrics which produces an uncomfortable feeling of inappropriateness and triviality about the neighbours' reaction to the murders. We know that realistically there would have been an atmosphere of speculation, suspicion and mistrust before the arrests. They sing "You automatically think it could be HIM" but the overall result feels distasteful and voyeuristic and doesn't show people in the best possible light although it undoubtedly a true portrayal.

Of course that their street became dubbed the Ipswich red light district was accidental as the singers remind us of the error whenever the media call London Road the red light district. It was an ordinary town street until the local football stadium was redeveloped and closed circuit cameras installed to identify marauding football fans. The prostitutes were forced out of that area into nearby residential roads, one of which was London Road. The focus on this street is heightened because, when he is arrested, the murderer, a fork lift truck driver, Steve Wright has been found to be living in a house there for just ten weeks. Of course "the girls" working the road were rude and aggressive when challenged by the residents but we feel the lack of sympathy for them. The victims were mostly drug addicts using prostitution to fund their habit in this oldest of professions.

Rufus Norris gets wonderful performances from his ensemble cast led by the remarkable Kate Fleetwood, almost unrecognisable in an auburn bobbed wig as Julie, the hanging basket organiser. There are strong singers for this largely sung through musical and very good character actors who can sing. Each cast member takes on different roles using costume changes to mark the switch. To open the show, the cast greet the audience, shaking hands in a friendly welcoming scene in the community hall. Towards the end of the production, three prostitutes stop singing for what seems like an eternity in a seemingly spontaneous silent tribute to their friends who were killed.

Javier de Frutos contributes invaluably as movement director with a memorable scene creating a cat's cradle, crisscross of scene of crime tape inconveniently tying the residents into their homes and making them walk the long way round to get to the park as they are also besieged by the nation's press. Katrina Lindsay's design is small scale domestic detailing but a balcony allows the press and others to look down on the scene below. She goes to town on the London Road in Bloom competition with myriad, descending lush hanging baskets, kitsch statues of Jesus, the Virgin and garden gnomes. The hanging baskets made me think about the campaigns to bring back hanging as the death penalty for murder.

Adam Cork's music is clear and tuneful with heavily repetitious lyrics so there is no chance that we will miss the message. The musical takes us through a chronological analysis from the discovery of the first bodies to the trial at Ipswich Crown Court which the residents watch from the comfort of leather sofas. It is DNA evidence which identifies the murderer. We are told by way of a finale that "the girls" are given help to get off drugs and so break the need for prostitution and to underline the production ethics, at the end of the play, actors collect for Ichthus, a drug prevention Christian charity working in the Ipswich area.

London Road through the babble of conversation gives us much to think about. The press sing about the residents' reaction: "They like a good moan but they still watch the news and buy the papers" pointing out the inconsistencies in the behaviour of us all.

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London Road
Book and Lyrics by Alecky Blythe
Music and Lyrics by Adam Cork
Directed by Rufus Norris

Starring: Kate Fleetwood, Paul Thornley, Nick Holder, Rosalie Craig
With: Hal Fowler, Claire Burt, Nicola Sloane, Howard Ward, Duncan Wiseby, Michael Shaeffer
Movement: Javier de Frutos
Design: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Music Director: David Shrubsole
Associate Musical Director: Ian Townsend
Sound: Paul Arditti
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 20th June 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th April 2011 performance at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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