London Road, Ipswich was at the heart of the neighbourhood in which five sex workers were murdered in 2006. Playwright Alecky Blythe travelled to Ipswich and recorded exhaustive, contemporaneous interviews with local residents and others, and subsequently used the verbatim transcripts in the dialogue and lyrics of the musical play written in collaboration with composer Adam Cork for a run at the National Theatre.
It was interesting how the narrative stays throughout with the folk surrounding the lurid events in London Road rather than with those – Steve Wright the murderer, the victims or the police – at the obvious core of them. We began with the AGM of the Neighbourhood Watch Committee, in which the second London Road flower show event was discussed. Then we moved on in flashback to the reaction of the locals as the various stages of the crime unfolded - the police investigation, nationwide interest, arrest, trial and aftermath. The form of the play's narrative was immediately established: a mix of straight dialogue, accompanied recitative and songs. Adam Cork's music for the versatile 6 or 7 person band - guitars, keyboard, drums and wind - was ubiquitous in act 1 but more relaxed in act 2, allowing the cast a bit more space. It got off to a surprisingly jaunty start with 'London Road in Bloom' and remained quite upbeat, given the grim subject matter, something in the manner of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Even the striking 'Everyone is Very, Very Nervous', performed with suitably jerky choreography and emphatic diction tantalised rather than flesh-creeped.
The O'Reilly internal layout is so flexible that it seemed a pity here that the tiered audience seating pushes well forward into the acting space, more or less forcing the cast to string out horizontally, with little depth of field. Nor did the proximity of the band, playing under a garden party awning just to one side, really help matters, given that on this opening night there was a distinct audibility problem both in respect of spoken dialogue and the song lyrics. The problem seemed to be a technical cast microphone one; the band is I think blameless. But I and other audience members were compelled at the interval to move to seats well away from the band, and the sound improved somewhat, while remaining muffled.
I was interested by the democratic imperative behind the drama. Dialogue and lyrics were presented with little editing of the demotic repetitions, hesitations and circumlocutions. I take it the purpose was to allow working-class folk to speak directly without - no doubt middle-class - interpretation.
This was an ambitious, thoughtful, well-drilled effort from Queenside Productions. There were nice little touches from director Ella McCarthy - I liked the residents corralled in their homes by festoons of police tape, and effective use was made of the gallery space above. Choreography was minimalist but workmanlike. There was not a single weak link in the cast of 11. I especially enjoyed Emily Albery as the residents' spokeswoman, struggling to articulate her feelings about the sex workers and their impact on the area. Max Reynolds was casual of movement and versatile of mood, even coming out with a perfectly-judged karaoke-type 'Rockin' All Over the World' at the end. I liked Ela Portnoy's buzzing energy, and Freddie Crowley had the sort of stage presence and voice that suggests there's more to come from him in bigger parts.
A few technical problems apart that will doubtless be resolved, this is the kind of show that will grow during its run this week. The subject matter's important, the treatment worthy, and people wanting a dramatic experience out of the ordinary should be sure to find their way to London Road.