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article imageReview: ‘London Road’, making its Toronto debut, is a bona fide original Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jan 25, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - In all the years I've been writing sporadic theatre reviews — from student papers through local weeklies to “Digital Journal” — this is the first time I’ve ever had to write these words: I’ve honestly never seen anything like this play.
You haven't either, I guarantee. Although that doesn't necessarily mean you'll like it, or that it will appeal to everyone. London Road — the smash 2011 British show that made its North American debut on Thursday night, at Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts — is part documentary, part musical, part murder story, part quirky comedy, and all gloriously, defiantly original.
It's an added huge bonus that it also works, often stunningly. That's due to the talent involved — both that of its creators and that of director Jackie Maxwell, music director Reza Jacobs, set designer Judith Bowden, the whole cast and others involved in this vibrant Canadian Stage production.
What makes London Road such a different theatrical experience? That takes a few steps to explain. First, it's a piece of “verbatim theatre,” in which the exact words of real-life people are reproduced onstage. (The Laramie Project is a pioneering example.) Playwright Alecky Blythe visited the Suffolk town of Ipswich in 2006, during the Steve Wright serial-murder case and trial, and interviewed many residents on the street where Wright lived; edited transcripts from these interviews became the play script, in which the characters often speak directly to the audience. But it’s not just the important words that are used verbatim: all the ums, yeahs and you-knows are left intact, while stutters, hesitations, interruptions and self-interruptions are recreated faithfully too.
Now, add to this innovation that the vast majority of the play is set to music. Composer and past Tony-winner Adam Cork has created a complex score that follows the dynamics and natural inflections of these characters' blunt, spontaneous speech. The book-ending number of the show, which you'll find yourself humming as you leave the theatre in spite of yourself, goes like this: “Begonias and / Petunias and / Um, impatience and things.” (It's referring to a flower show.) Another one has the refrain: “Everyone is very, very nervous / Um / And very unsure of everything / Basically.” Cork's music turns plain, clichéd, unrefined Suffolk conversation into a kind of poetry.
The story, such as there is one, explores how the community reacted to and dealt with the tragedy and media sensation resulting from the spree, in which five prostitutes were murdered. Locals form a neighbourhood watch at a church; teen girls on the street discuss how every man is potentially guilty (“You automatically think 'it could be him' / Yeah”); blokes at the pub crack dark jokes and make politically incorrect observations; news reporters surround Wright's house and mess up their lines; the locals go on with their annual trivia night; and seedy prostitutes uncomfortably talk about how the murders have affected their trade. Middle-aged spinster Julie (the ever-reliable Fiona Reid) is the closest thing the play has to a protagonist, with rest of the ensemble acting as parts of a whole.
It's a little reminiscent of some of Errol Morris' documentaries — and even Michael Moore's earlier work — in the way that Morris interviews people and just lets them speak for themselves, so that they often reveal strange personal quirks without realizing it. London Road is full of moments like that, such as the elderly lady who feels safe because the killer is “targeting women slightly younger than me,” or the married couple of whom the wife dominates the chat and the husband can't get a word in edgewise. Prejudices and offbeat observations abound. One girl sings, “If it happened in London, no one would care / 'Cause everyone gets stabbed in London every day.” Others admit that, ironically, they've never felt safer in their lives because of the number of police officers in the neighbourhood. Even Julie, who seems so sweet and motherly, blurts a shocking admission revealing that she's not all that she seems to be.
As the best filmed documentaries are, London Road is fascinating because of its non-judgemental stance. Blythe and Cork present these ordinary, everyday people almost exactly as they are, without embellishment (notwithstanding the musical accompaniment) or censorship. They leave it up the audience to make up their minds. The play documents how the banal and ordinary keep on going despite a backdrop of horror and tragedy; it also illustrates a whole spectrum of honest reactions, from fear to morbid fascination. The effect is one of sadness mixed with amusement at the goofy contradictions of human nature.
As I said earlier, London Road is a highly unconventional, experimental play that may not speak to all theatregoers. But even if the concept doesn't work for you, this production is still a visually and aurally exciting one. Maxwell keeps Bowden's sets and props alternating quickly and frequently, convincingly transporting you to different settings in the town, from cafes and pubs to private homes to the dark alleys of the red-light district. And while the show's easy to follow, you can still marvel at the complexity of how it was put together. Maxwell and Jacobs deserve strong laurels for keeping the cast in tune and perfectly synchronized with Cork's difficult music while also maintaining their characters' tone of colloquial spontaneity. (The thick Ipswich accents don't always hold up — there are a few Canuck bleed-throughs here and there — but you may not notice.)
London Road is a unique event in contemporary theatre. If you want a glimpse of what the future in stagecraft might look like, this is your chance.
London Road runs at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, until February 9.
More about Theatre, Musical, Toronto, canadian stage, london road
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