I managed to catch London Road at the National last night. For a while, I was unsure whether I was going to like this – the musicality seemed a bit forced at times, much like when I went to see the misfiring Umbrellas of Cherbourg last year. Coming out, I can say that I’m proud that our national theatre is willing to take on work like that in amongst the various Chekov’s. Generally, I’m a big fan of multi-protagonist pieces, and London Road is certainly one of those – a cast of around ten performers, alternating roles in a manner that is never confusing, thanks to their employing distinct physicality’s. The costume department deserve a lot of praise here as well, making subtle but important use of colour to aid this further.
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a play that hinges on the murder of five women and that is packed with laughs. A woman in front of me found this so uncomfortable that she left at the interval. I recall Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, a play about successive immigrant communities into London’s East End and the racism inherent within them, also getting the same mix of laughter and disgust. I never got to see that, but I’d argue that for this play it shouldn’t be a problem. First of all, London Road, from it’s very conception, makes a conscious effort to not merely exploit the tragedy. The show is built entirely off of interviews with locals, before being musical’d up. While I’d say this isn’t usually enough for me, it’s a sign of good faith, and in this case the words appear to have been kept in context. Secondly, the laughter is never really at the people, living or dead, more a reaction to the recognisable honesty of their existence. A traumatised community having an ‘In Bloom’ competition compels a chuckle because we know exactly what they are desperately trying to compensate for but that, crucially, we know we’d all be doing something similar if we too were faced with that scenario. Thirdly, the ensemble construction and scale of the play in terms of sheer amount of characters, allows us to build a fair and even view of not just the community of London Road, but also the reporters, the prostitutes, giving us a range of views and a dynamic tone. Some parts are appropriately sombre while never slipping into being reverential (that would feel dishonest), whereas others are exactly as absurd as we know us to be (A reporter talking about a serial killer is unable to say the word ‘semen’ because that would be problematic for kids…).
In summation: I’m glad I saw it, I feel it gave a human, sympathetic account of the murders and the subsequent fallout without shying away from the darkness and, much like Enron, it makes the most of its theatricality to drive home more serious points. Get a ticket if you can.