London Road: a lesson from the little society

Clapham Riot Cleanup

The speedy response of local communities to last week’s riots – sweeping streets together, sticking encouraging post-it notes on boarded up shops, offering time, money and goods to those who had lost everything – shows that almost all of us are community minded when the occasion calls for it.  My favourite image was one on twitter, of what looked like a hundred brooms held aloft in a South London street.

In the same week, I caught one of the final showings of London Road – Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s engaging, amusing musical theatre piece that explores the healing power of community.  I was totally absorbed and didn’t have to wriggle once in my narrow, cramped seat to stay focussed.  Often, I have to intone a silent pep talk at the interval to drag myself away from the snack bar and back into the theatre. 

I’d been to Blythe’s The Girlfriend Experience at The Young Vic in 2009, and loved the sense of immediacy and honesty in her work that results from her technique of transmitting the actor’s dialogue to headphones without ever showing them a script.  Pried away from the creative tools of their trade, each actor takes on the persona of the individual they’re representing (whom Blythe has interviewed and recorded); adopting their tone of voice, accent, and verbal tics. 

This time, Blythe had Cork’s musical expertise to work with as well, and he has extended her creative approach and matched the characters’ words, tone and emotion to a musical score.  I am now the proud owner of the London Road soundtrack, although haltingly signing “Begonias … and petunias … um … impatiens and … things” probably sounds more than a little odd as I’m standing at the tube station.

London Road is the street in Ipswich on which Stephen Wright lived when he murdered five prostitutes in 2006/2007, and the play explores the spaces and people around controversial events that the media never cover.  So we meet the residents of London Road at a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, find a local radio DJ giving out personal alarms in the town centre, and watch two teenage girls giggle excitedly over the murders, since “nothing ever happens in Suffolk”.

Blythe’s talent in splicing together pieces of dialogue from different interviews, made at different points in time, allows her to manipulate her subject matter into a loose storyline, add touches of humour, and occasionally parody her subjects. 

The murders were a terrible catalyst for the residents of London Road to meet their neighbours and start taking an active interest in their local community.  But four years later they’re still going strong, with an active Neighbourhood watch group and an annual ‘London Road in Bloom’ competition judged by local dignitaries.  I hope those communities affected by the riots can stay a little closer now too.

London Road, National Theatre

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