Thursday, 2 June 2011

London Road. A Life Belt for Verbatim Theatre?

Back to the National this evening to see London Road, Alecky Blythe's new verbatim musical based on the shocked testimonies of the residents of the Ipswich street where, in 2006, six sex workers were murdered by local man Stephen Wright. The premise for the work has divided opinion with some cultural critics seeing the play as a cynical exploitation, others have applauded it as groundbreaking.

I fall into the latter camp, whilst recognising that the field of verbatim theatre, like any form of documentary art does, by implication, feed off and edit the nuanced experiences of individual lives. In this case the sense of unease is exaggerated by the fact that this account of a relatively recent serial killing is set to music.

Counter intuitively then it's a surprise that the brilliance of London Road comes through Adam Cork's beautiful score, that immaculately captures the rhythms and colloquial complexities of the Suffolk dialect. Through the use of repetition and overlay Cork has discovered a poignant new language that dramatically reveals the characters underlying fears, anxieties and curiosity about the tragedy unfolding in their midst. Far from being a reductive exercise in pigeon holing stock characters the delicate attention that his musicianship brings to the linguistics of the text enable us to hear each of the sixty or so voices that make up this sound scape as clear and unique.

Verbatim as a form was in need of a boost. What began as a form of tribunal or theatre journalism, always overtly political, occasionally campaigning, had in many ways evolved into a lazy shorthand for play making. A democratic formula that anybody could replicate to create a library of opinion on a particular subject. To be frank it was becoming tiresome.

London Road though marks a serious stage of evolution for the verbatim play. It's a work of abundant theatrically recognising that the genuine uniqueness of the form comes through the forensic way it can examine how things are said. The deliberate musicality reminds us that tenor, tone and rhythm carry their own truths which can contradict or puncture the literal meaning of reported text. It's a very important work.


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