Review – London Road – National Theatre Cottlesloe

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A musical written using interviews with regular people as the book, with the neighbor’s response to the murder of five women working on London Road as the topic? To me, this sounded like the epitome of theater I’d rather skip. I figured it was likely to be preachy and reverent or nauseatingly simplistic. Yet, despite this, the West End Whingers said it was amazing and tweeter after tweeter said it as a must see. What was I missing out on? Sensing a sell-out and worrying about missing out on the event of the year, I hurriedly booked some tickets a few weeks after opening and sat down to wait my turn.

While not exactly simplistic, I have to say this show was in some ways nauseating. My previous theatrical outing had been Betty Blue Eyes, and I was shocked to see the residents of Ipswich displaying far less sympathy for the murder victims than the characters in Betty Blue Eyes did for a pig. Again and again they said how much more pleasant it was now that the sex workers were gone, with occasional brief mentions of “a blessing in disguise” and one woman finally saying if she met the murderer she’d “shake his hand.” While no one seemed bothered by just how the women were earning a living, they mentioned that they were rude and threatening, indiscreet, and basically dirtied up the place. Much like the police cordon and media spotlight, they were an inconvenience – but nothing a few hanging baskets couldn’t easily replace. Every word of sympathy came out sounding like “and this is what we kind of feel we have to say” – but I heard little reference to the children or families the victims have, and over the entire show the names of the women were said maybe twice. The playwright meant to focus on the residents, and I think her choice for a narrow focus might have helped the play, but I couldn’t help feel an implicit acceptance of the residents’ attitudes. The women were throwaways, creatures who existed in essence because they set a plot rolling that allowed this play to take place. Ignoring them could safely be done, with the milksop of a charity collection at the end of the night to help us all reassure ourselves that we aren’t really lacking in sympathy – as long as these eyesores keep themselves out of sight.

That said, there was a lot to think about in this not-quite-a-musical, with its impressive narrative through-line (I was never once bored, like I was in Love Story and, I admit, Umbrellas of Cherbourg). I was particularly impressed by the documentation of the town’s descent into a hysteria – the women questioning if every man is the murderer (the men participate in this, too); the terror caused by lack of security (although someone wryly adds that it’s all pretty silly given that unless you’re actually a prostitute you don’t seem to be in any danger); the media circus and the lynch mob mentality after Steve Wright was caught (rather surprising how angry people were given that some saw him performing a public service, like the dog catcher). But in the London Road residents’ parts, as they go on about their efforts to clean up their street, I felt this “elephant in the room” moment rather reminiscent of Proust’s great scene as Charles Swann attempts to say goodbye to his lifelong friends the Guermantes in the way the beautification committee members chirpily avoid discussing the deaths that motivated their efforts. Ah, the banality of everyday life, and the willful avoidance of the truth of the ends we all will all meet; is this not just the core of suburban existence? It was almost as depressing as the ugly attitudes underneath the potted petunias.

Despite my real engagement while watching this show, I can’t say it deserved its praise as a musical: the tweedly Phillip Glass-like score (not a compliment) didn’t have any sort of melody at all. And while London Road is a very interesting social document – rather like a master’s thesis in urban anthropology – I didn’t really feel as a play it’s going to have a long life, as this smallish mass-murder fades from the public consciousness. However, there is no denying the theater was packed to the rafters and on a Wednesday night there were some 15 people queueing for seats. Perhaps given the popularity of this show the National ought to give up its current focus on plays about climate change; it seems that to fill the houses earnest educational shows are out and serial killers are the rage. I’m guessing a revival of Silence: the Musical should come next and then maybe something about the man in Vancouver who lured streetwalkers to his slaughterhouse before killing them. At least in England the police treated the murders (if not the disappearances) of Gemma Adams and Tania Nicol as a crime that needed to be pursued instantly rather than letting them continue to be picked off one by one for five years; and in that, at least, London Road shows a tiniest candle of hope in a world lacking in empathy.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 1st, 2011. It has been extended through August 27th so now if you want to see it there is hope.)

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One Response to “Review – London Road – National Theatre Cottlesloe”

  1. Mini-review – Here Lies Love – National Theater | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] last year I was there watching The Light Princess and some few years before that the one about the mass murderer in Ipswich. Well, forget that one, let’s go back to The Light Princess: inventive, beautiful, gorgeously […]

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