I saw the original production of London Road at the Cottesloe in 2011, was blown away by it then, and wrote about the show in the early days of this blog. It remains one of my favourite pieces of musical theatre ever (although that, admittedly, is a very short list). When CanStage announced that they would mount the first non-UK production of the piece as part of their 2013/14 season, I wasn’t sure what to think: how would a cast of Canadian actors handle the very specific accents of Blythe’s verbatim script? Would a highly specific story about a highly particular place (Ipswich in 2006) resonate with Canadian audiences? What would the status of play that seems to connected to its origins be in a place far removed from those origins?

I’m happy to say that most of those doubts were silenced by the production that is now on stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre. There are differences, to be sure: most noticeable, to me at least, is a tendency for some of the songs to sound more “sung” than in the original — there seems to be more vocal colour, and the tone overall is less clipped, less speech-like. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Having listened to the London cast recording on CD quite a bit between 2011 and now, I had got used to the Canadian cast’s delivery, but I don’t know that one is “better” or more “faithful” (or whatever) than the other. What is mildly fascinating to me is that two performances of a “verbatim” piece can still end up sounding so unlike each other.

Much of what I wrote in 2011 about the verbal aesthetics of London Road applies to this production as well. It remains a fascinating and totally captivating experiment in form.

But it is obviously more than that — this is, after all, a play about the murder of five women. I didn’t feel like writing about that two years ago, but I think it’s worth revisiting the play’s treatment of its subject(s). Perhaps the most significant difference between this production and the one I saw in 2011 is the audience: they didn’t sit in total silence when I saw the show yesterday, but nor was there a lot of laughter. As far as I can recall, the London audience was much more vocally amused. So often did I feel compelled to stifle a giggle yesterday that I asked my partner during the intermission why no-one seemed to understand the satirical edge of the show. As I realized later, that was quite the wrong way of putting it. While I still think that London Road is much funnier (if grimly so) than yesterday’s audience seemed to think, it’s not satire — because I don’t think it adopts the superior perspective that satire requires. Nor is it an indictment of its characters. But I also don’t think the play can reasonably be read as a celebration of community, as a narrative of a traumatized town (or street) finding a new spirit of holding together in response to a terrible crime.

The show’s darkest moment arrives late in the play, with “Julie’s” spoken confession that she would shake the murderer Steve Wright’s hand and thank him for ridding her neighbourhood of its former problems with prostitution. But that line only makes explicit a shocking lack of empathy that runs through much of the testimony the script records. No doubt the London Road community was traumatized by the crimes; there was a need for “recovery” (as Blythe writes in a program note). But Maxwell’s director’s note puts a rather strangely positive spin on things when she writes that “these voices tell the tale of a group of people beset by grief and how they struggled to move forward.” Grief? Really? The vast majority of voices we hear speak about fear, about uncertainty, about the massive intrusion of media and police into their lives, about the menacing presence of prostitutes in the neighbourhood, and insist, again and again, with a very English middle-middle sense of respectability under threat, that London Road is not a “red light district” and that it mustn’t be remembered as the home of a vicious killer. (Steve Wright did only live there for “ten weeks,” after all — his presence in their midst means nothing, “it could have been next door to you;” they have as little to do with the murderer and his crimes as they did have in common with his victims.) The amount of energy and time these people spend worrying about bright lights in their windows and the inconvenience of police barricades on their street, and the dedication to the most outward, superficial facade of “healing” — front gardens and flower baskets — stand in stark contrast to the near-total absence of pity for the prostitutes, murdered or alive, or any thought to what may have happened to those who now no longer work on or near London Road. And I can’t recall anyone seriously grieving the victims. The most “traumatized” residents, about to leave the neighbourhood, are mostly terrorized by the thought that multiple women may have been murdered in a house they can see from their front windows; they’re affected emotionally by the crimes, but only because their manifest traces in their neighbourhood are impossible to ignore, not because they feel for the victims. If the end of the play represents a “recovered” community, it’s a community whose recovery is predicated on the expulsion of the community that Steve Wright preyed upon.

Kelly Nestruck’s incisive review concluded that “Blythe and Cork are in love with the English language, but seemingly little else about the English,” and I think that’s half-true. But I’m not sure the show is as judgmental as this assessment implies. To my own mind, none of the London Road residents’ responses are especially admirable. But they seem both understandable and quite normal. And while it seems to me that the sense of community they find (flowers, raffles, Christmas parties) is fairly shallow and totally banal, that doesn’t mean it’s not real — or necessary. Much of what the residents say should be off-putting. They don’t say the sorts of things one is supposed to say. They clearly don’t feel the way one is supposed to feel. Most of them are profoundly indifferent to the murdered women and are only affected by the crimes to the extent that they feel victimized themselves — as potential victims, as residents of an unjustly maligned neighbourhood, as inconvenienced bystanders. None of this is good, and little of it has any moral justification. But most of us don’t lead terribly moral lives. And very few of us, I dare say, think terribly moral things all the time. I suspect that if had lived on London Road in 2006, I might have shared some of the sentiments expressed by the characters in the play.

But saying that Blythe doesn’t judge her subjects is not the same as saying that her play celebrates their community spirit. Rather, I think London Road dissects the banality of the everyday response to evil with a kind of surgical neutrality, without pretending that these everyday figures are any worse in their attitudes than most of us would be. Which is why Richard Ouzounian’s characteristically superficial review completely misses the point when he claims that the play “runs in terror” from the “most problematic” moral issues. This response may have something to with his reading of the play’s ending as “triumphant:” “Who were the real victims of Wright’s murderous rampage? Not the self-satisfied bourgeoisie of Ipswich, who spend a triumphant final scene celebrating the excellence of their city’s floral displays.” Ouzounian seems to think that the play embraces its characters, but that strikes me as a pretty egregious misreading. The play doesn’t avoid Wright’s victims. The citizens of Ipswich do. The community may celebrate its own new-found success at the end of the show, but it’s a massive leap to assume that the play shares in that celebration — in fact, given that we get to hear the actual voices of a number of displaced sex workers at that point there can be little doubt that Blythe is well aware (and wants us to be aware, too) that this sense of community is founded not just on murder but also on a determination of who is not part of the neighbourhood. The reprise of the “London Road in bloom” song at the end of the show, no less beautiful than when it is first heard, struck me as utterly chilling, its charm hollowed out by everything we had heard the residents say in between the song’s two appearances. I would also add that one of the most moving moments of the show, to me at least, comes near its mid point, when a group of reporters recites the victims’ names and the details of where they were discovered, a superficially matter-of-fact account that manages to be both unsentimental and dirge-like. It’s an austere reminder of who is absent from the play and a signal that the victims’ absence reflects the fact that they did not feature prominently among the residents’ concerns and worries.

The music plays an integral part in all this. If the residents were simply presented as “people,” I think it would be easy for us to judge them — to take the moral high road, sit comfortably, smugly in the audience and assure ourselves that there is nothing in these people that deserves our attention or should make us reflect. The music doesn’t quite make this sort of attitude impossible, but it does elevate the residents’ discourse, renders it appealing, aesthetically pleasing, softening its objectionable implications. Yes, hanging baskets are an absurd response to serial killings; but when they look as glorious (and gloriously theatrical) as here, and when they are described in a song that so masterfully combines the beautiful and the banal, it is difficult to simply dismiss the idea out of hand that there may be something more to “London Road in bloom” than a mere whitewashing of what has happened on this street. And once we’ve come that far, perhaps it’s easier to adopt an attitude that allows us to acknowledge that even as the residents are on the whole pretty callous and self-centred, they’re probably no more callous and self-centred than most of us.

I’ve not really said very much about this particular production, and I don’t have all that much to say — it’s a very well-acted, well-sung performance, and works much better than I had expected (or feared). Some elements of the staging are wonderful, the flowers in particular. But for the sake of critical honesty, I’ll end on two critical notes.

The set is kind of a mess. Images of a black-and-white street of terraced houses (presumably the actual London Road) are plastered all over it, as a large backdrop and, repeated and fragmented, behind a grid that lines, frieze-like, the top third of the back and sidewalls of the stage (with an inexplicable cage-like structure sticking out stage right). There are gridlines everywhere — on the floor and on the rotating panels that form a second upstage wall, and I’m not sure what they’re supposed to signify. A low brick wall runs across the stage upstage, just in front of the photographic backdrop, as an oddly realistic element in an otherwise non-realist set. When the police cordon off the street, they mostly use white and blue streamers that drop from the fly, rather than actual crime scene tape. The idea is obviously to isolate the residents in their own segregated cells, but with the tape running up into the fly, this makes for a messy image (in the London production, the tape ran at chest height between the actors — same idea, but a much cleaner image). Things get even fussier when a tall, flat column of blue-lit panels descends into this tent of streamers from the fly: the signal throughout the show that a TV reporter is about to speak. Visually, it’s not an especially elegant solution under any circumstances. In this scene, it creates a totally unbalanced and over-loaded stage picture. And dramatically, the slow descent of the column of empty blue rectangles does nothing (it’s not like one wouldn’t understand that the person with the microphone facing a camera is a TV reporter without those faux monitors).

The second thing that struck me as quite strange, and in terms of the show’s politics, as quite counterproductive was the decision to have the actors speak or sign right out into the audience, as if we were the stand-in for the interviewer (at one point near the end of the show, a character even invites “Alecky” in — a moment I didn’t remember from the original production). This may seem like a strange thing to say, given that I’ve spent quite a bit of space above arguing that the play directly implicates the audience. But what sits very awkwardly with this approach is the decision to cast the auditorium in pitch darkness. The actors may address “us” — but we are so safely ensconced in our unlit seats that “we” know “they” can’t actually see us; and since they can’t, they don’t actually address anyone. They just speak or sing while facing in our general direction. In the Cottesloe, a much smaller space, the audience can’t hide like this, nor can the light be kept off our faces and bodies as effectively. I don’t know what the effect was when the play was remounted in the Olivier, but at the Bluna Appel, I felt that the clear division between stage and audience, between “those people” and “us,” ran counter to what the play is trying to do: rather than helping the show’s delicate balancing act between realism and beauty, between moral judgment and moral implication, it turned the actors and their characters into objects of contemplation that don’t in fact speak to us, address us, implicate us in their shortcomings and weaknesses. The idea of having the play speak directly to the audience was the right one, I think, but actors can’t speak to an audience they can’t see (and an audience that doesn’t feel observed). I wish they’d kept the house lights on.

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