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Review: London Road

Art made from murder

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1

    The killing of five Ipswich prostitutes in 2006 provides the material for a brilliant piece of musical theatre
    The killing of five Ipswich prostitutes in 2006 provides the material for a brilliant piece of musical theatre

    I doubt that those who accused the National Theatre of callous bad taste in creating a show based on the murder of five Ipswich prostitutes in 2006 will be mollified by the brilliance of London Road.

    This is one of those shows where for some, the word "musical" trivialises atrocity. Putting aside the sheer wrong-headedness of those who think that musicals can only be trivial, a more useful description of this show, which melds the verbatim skills of Alecky Blythe with stunning compositions by Adam Cork, is that of a play with music.

    When Blythe took her voice recorder into the Ipswich community in December 2006, five bodies had been found, but no arrest made. By interviewing people on the streets and in pubs she recorded the fear of a community under siege from a serial killer. Six months later she returned just before the trial of Steve Wright - later convicted of the murders - to find that the community had bonded. The Neighbourhood Watch scheme had set up a flowers-in-bloom competition. The residents of London Road, where Wright lived during the period he killed, had festooned their street with hanging baskets in effort to rehabilitate the area's reputation. It is this transition that forms the story in the play.

    The result, which utterly justifies the National's experimental workshop programme, is a show that feels like a reinvention of musical theatre. The songs here are musicalised sentences sung by a cast who replicate every hesitation, "um" and "erm", recorded by Blythe in Ipswich. The effect is something like watching a Nick Park animation where the talking animals are lip-synched to the voices of real people. Except that here, the voices belong to the actors, that is apart from the beginning and the poignant end when excerpts from Blythe's recordings reveal the voices of the residents and surviving prostitutes.

    But what elevates Rufus Norris's production above other, less creative verbatim offerings is the way that Cork somehow teases out the rhythms and musicality of a spoken sentence. That, and the way the cast of 11 - from Kate Fleetwood's busybody neighbour Julie, to Nick Holder's Ron, the solemn chairman of the Neighbourhood Watch - superbly replicate the real-life, small-town characters of the story.

    There are issues, though, particularly that of using real lives as material for art.There is the sense that Blythe and her collaborators view themselves as less exploitative than the journalists - represented here pretty unsympathetically - who stalked the town during the murders. If that is the case, they should not kid themselves. Everyone here is exploiting the experience of those involved, which in the pursuit of art as great as this, is as it should be.

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