Review – London Road, National Theatre

Alecky Blythe previously came to the attention to Sans Taste at the unexpectedly touching Girlfriend Experience at the Young Vic. The premise behind her Recorded Delivery Writing and Performance Technique there was to make recordings in a community (in this case a group of prostitutes) which are then played back to the actors during the performance, allowing them to reproduce the words of the characters not just verbatim but literatim, capturing every inflection, hesitation and mannerism, ever stutter, meander and pause. The effect, as I’ve written previously, is quite exceptional: words in normal plays have never seemed less real than after a few hours of hearing how real people speak and hearing that it is possible to reproduce that on stage.

London Road is a departure from this method and a departure that, at first, seems utterly extraordinary. Maintaining the verbatim recordings of her previous work, but abandoning the playback during performance, this work sets Blythe’s recordings to Adam Cork’s music to form a complex and overlapping mosaic of sound and a communication experience quite unlike anything I have experienced before.

The subject matter – the 2006 murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich – has caused some hand wringing in the press, but in reality this work could hardly be less sensationalist or more sympathetic to the individuals – all individuals – involved. Using entirely the words of the people who shared a residential road with the murderer – as well as the police, press, and prostitutes caught up in the case – Blythe and Cork construct a compelling narrative and a fascinating portrait of the personalities behind a grizzly news story. It is at times both a touching and terrifying painting of ordinary England.

What they construct is certainly a musical in the strictest sense, but it’s difficult to describe it as containing songs or numbers. It more closely resembles a flowing soundscape, in which words and phrases are frequently repeated to demonstrate themes and messages – although the words are verbatim, their juxtaposition and context is closely controlled. The work is no less of a creative triumph because of its lack of original source material. And there are even some strangely catchy tunes in there.

The performances also are superb. The actors morph between the dozens of different roles they each play with rudimentary costume changes, but more obviously through the natural change in pace and diction which flows from the knowledge of not just the words, but the way of speaking those words, of their characters.

London Road is unlike any play or any musical I’ve ever seen. It really is a superb achievement – for the creators, the performers and the National – and earns the highest praise Sans Taste has: it is a must see.