My London Road to Being a Theater Lover
When I was in junior high and high school, living a half-hour drive (without traffic—ha!) from Manhattan, I saw just about every play and musical my folks would let me. Broadway theater tickets cost $8 for upper mezzanine if you were a student, and a lot of my public school teachers were onetime actors who loved taking us kids to the shows.
We’d meet outside the high school, trundle onto a yellow school bus, and in less than an hour, tromp inside a theater to eagerly await the moment the lights went down and the orchestra struck up the overture. We’d be treated to magic, thrilling drama, soaring music, and spectacle.
There’s nothing like a Broadway musical. At its best, it blows the doors off film and tv. If you haven’t seen one, put it on your bucket list. Someday you will thank me.
And in London, they often do theater even better than Broadway, with their smaller theaters, delicate acoustics, and national fascination with fine drama and acting, stretching back to William Shakespeare and beyond.
Now I want to tell you about “London Road,” a musical created at the National Theatre in London. It’s about to be released as a movie. I don’t even know if it will come to theaters in the US. I must see it.
I saw the play in London in August 2012. It is not a typical musical. No toe-tapping dance numbers, although the score is haunting, and bears the kind of repeat listening I used to give “Carousel” and “Company” and “Les Miserables” when I was younger.
“London Road” arose from a collaboration between a musical theater composer and a playwright who was experimenting with a kind of “verbatim” theater. In this avant garde style of drama the actors recite the unaltered words of real life interviews, and also pronounce them with the exact cadence and accent of the interview—sometimes to the point that they are listening to the interviews and reciting what they hear on stage as they perform.
“London Road” is about people who live on a small road in Ipswich, a rural east country bourgeois English town, a bit of a backwater, where 5 local prostitutes have been murdered.
Surprisingly, the subject of the story is not the killer or the victims, but how the people of the community react to the murders, and the publicity around them, and then try to rebuild their lives. In “London Road” the people who are often the Chorus in more traditional drama become the stars. We never meet the serial killer or the victims or their families. The dialogue and libretto of the play is built from actual interviews with Ipswich people taken while the murders were first discovered and investigated—mall rat kids, media people, prostitutes and nosey neighbors. Depending on your point of view, it’s about regular people overcoming a terrible tragedy, or ignoring the social ills right under their noses that created the tragedy in the first place. The play is a kind of political litmus test. The viewer’s reaction, I’ve found, reveals a lot about their politics.
The show’s verbatim style, when set to music, is fascinating. Every vocal tick, every “um” and “sort of” is kept in, and treated rhythmically, sometimes in a staccato fashion, which makes for a delightfully textured score. The style moves from traditionally melodic, to John Cage-esque.
To folks on IMDB who have ignorantly posted their scandalization at a musical about serial murders, maybe save your judgy-ness for such musicals as “Silence!” (the unofficial musical version of [i]Silence of the Lambs[/i], which I also enjoyed).
“London Road” doesn’t sensationalize murder or prostitution. Instead it talks about the interplay of media sensationalism and narrow-minded middle class values, and the ways in which we may treat those living closest to us as “other.” Is there such a thing as community anymore? If so, what does it mean? Who belongs and who is ostracized? Can a festival of hanging flower baskets make people forget about the 5 prostitutes who were brutally murdered just a few houses away? Apparently, they can. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?
If all this isn’t enough for you, Tom Hardy’s in it, not in a leading role. Why? Because he’s a fan of the play.
See the movie.
“London Road” plays at London’s National Theatre June 9, and opens wide in the U.K. on June 12. When will it hit the U.S.? Watch this space.