Spotlight: LONDON ROAD at the National Theatre

London Road jacketPlaywright Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork have scored a tremendous success with their bold, innovative verbatim musical London Road, which opened at the National Theatre last week. But what was the genesis of this ‘startling, magically original’ (Evening Standard) new work?

Alecky Blythe: I work using a technique originally created by Anna Deavere Smith, who combined the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of reproducing their words accurately in performance. The technique involves going into a community of some sort and recording conversations with people, which are then edited to become the script of the play. However, the actors do not see the text. The edited recordings are played live to the actors through earphones during the rehearsal process, and onstage in performance. The actors listen to the audio and repeat what they hear. They copy not just the words but exactly the way in which they were first spoken. Every cough, stutter and hesitation is reproduced. Up till now for my previous shows, the actors have not learnt the lines at any point. By listening to the audio during performances the actors are helped to remain accurate to the original recordings, rather than slipping into their own patterns of speech or embellishment.

London Road production shot

Howard Ward, Nicola Sloane, Duncan Wisbey, Michael Shaeffer, Claire Moore, Clare Burt, Paul Thornley, Hal Fowler, Kate Fleetwood, Rosalie Craig, Nick Holder (all as reporters). Photo by Helen Warner

My first interviews from Ipswich were collected on 15th December 2006; five bodies had been found but no arrests had been made. The town was at the height of its fear. I had been gripped and appalled by the spiralling tragedies that were unravelling in Ipswich during that dark time. It would of course be a shocking experience for any community, but the fact that it took place in this otherwise peaceful rural town, never before associated with high levels of crime or soliciting, made it all the more upsetting for the people who lived there. It was not what was mainly being reported in the media about the victims or the possible suspects that drew me to Ipswich, but the ripples it created in the wider community in the lives of those on the periphery. Events of this proportion take hold in all sorts of areas outside the lead story, and that is what I wanted to explore. What Adam and I discovered with the music was that it succeeded in binding together shared sentiments that were being echoed throughout the town during those worrying times. I was excited to have a new tool at my disposal with the songwriting. By creating verses and choruses I could shape the material for narrative and dramatic effect further than I had ever been able to do before.

It was not until six months later, when I returned to Ipswich to gauge the temperature of the town after the arrests but before the trial, that I stumbled upon what was to me the most interesting development so far. A Neighbourhood Watch that had been set up at the time of the murders had organised a ‘London Road in Bloom’ competition and the street could not have looked more different from when it had been besieged by the media the winter before. Hanging baskets lined the roads and front gardens were bursting with floral displays. Such was the impact of the terrible happenings in that area that the community had come together and set up a series of events, from gardening competitions to quiz nights, in order to try to heal itself. Although this had some coverage in the local press, the national media had not reported this final and important chapter of the story. Over the course of the next two years, I regularly revisited the residents of London Road to chart their full recovery.

London Road production shot

Rosalie Craig (Helen), Duncan Wisbey (Gordon) and members of the company. Photo by Helen Warner

Adam Cork: When I first met Alecky at the National Theatre Studio almost four years ago, as part of an experimental week which brought together composers and playwrights, I had no idea that I’d be working with a ‘verbatim’ practitioner. And when Alecky explained the concept and methods of this documentary form to me, I have to admit my very first thought was ‘How on earth can I turn this into music?’ But when we started listening to her interviews, I began to feel that this could be an inspiring new approach to songwriting, or, more accurately, an exciting development of an existing way of composing songs. Whenever I’ve set conventional texts to music, I’ve always spoken the words to myself, and transcribed the rhythms and the melodic rise and fall of my own voice, to try and arrive at the most truthful and direct expression of the text. And here was an opportunity to refine that to a much purer process, without any authorial or poetic interpretation (not to mention my own bad acting) polluting the connection between the actual subject and his or her representation in music.

My initial aim was that the music should be as articulated as possible, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing justice to the reality and the uniqueness of the depicted people. I also wanted to seize the challenge of taking an experimental idea and developing it into something which could be interesting as both music and drama. I didn’t want to reference any overall musical style, but rather, discover responses suggested by the material on a moment-by-moment basis. For that reason I didn’t foresee much cross-pollination of musical motifs from one song to another, although I did want the identity of each individual song to be clear; I felt this was the only way I could create musical meaning from this un-versified, spontaneously spoken text. I also hoped that, in the spirit of the documentary concept, the musical score would be like a time capsule inside which the speech rhythms would be captured and contained, frozen and fossilised in music just as they have a fixed existence on Alecky’s recordings. And I wanted to find a way of singing with the quality of speech, which is altogether different from either an operatic or a conventional musical-theatre vocal style.

London Road production shot

Nick Holder, Hal Fowler, Howard Ward, Paul Thornley, Rosalie Craig, Nicola Sloane and Claire Moore. Photo by Helen Warner

Making spontaneously spoken words formal, through musical accompaniment and repetition, has the potential to explode the thought of a moment into slow motion, and can allow us more deeply to contemplate what’s being expressed. This seems particularly interesting when many different people speak about the same thought or feeling. The choral presentation of this story seems to underline the ritual aspect of human communal experience. The experiences captured on this stage are not new to our species, whether it’s the healing process after a tragedy, the gathering of forces within a community to find and punish a dangerous individual, or the telling of all these events to the wider community. This is deeply ancient, shared human experience in all its facets, no matter how much professionalism and the division of labour distance us from each other today. The people of Ipswich, the residents of London Road, and the news media, play their part in this ritual, and so do we, in presenting this piece of choric theatre.

London Road plays at the National Theatre, booking until 18th June. Today’s piece is an extract from Alecky and Adam’s introductions to the published text of the play. To buy the full text – with every hesitation, stumble, stutter and tic carefully recorded – with a special 20% discount (and free p&p for UK customers), click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout and your discount will be applied when your order is processed.

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