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Rufus Norris' Realist Musical "London Road" Is a Kitchen-Sync Masterpiece

Robin Menken: Norris establishes a tense atmosphere as his camera's prowls the mostly working class neighborhood in Ipswitch, establishing characters as the initial TV announcements of the discovery of a corpse begin to morph into free verse recitative.

Rufus Norris' "London Road" is a must-see experiment in musical theatre. Blending a true crime forensic with lyrics and music drawn from verbatim interviews, he's created a morbid, thrilling experience.

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Norris establishes a tense atmosphere as his camera's prowls the mostly working class neighborhood in Ipswitch, establishing characters as the initial TV announcements of the discovery of a corpse begin to morph into free verse recitative.

I admired but didn't enjoy Jacque Demy's two free verse musicals, "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort ", nor did I cotton to Alain Resnais' "Same Old Song" (“On connaît la chanson), and "Not on the Lips" (“Pas sur la bouche). I found Lars Von Trier's "Breaking The Waves" pretentious.

Norris establishes a tense atmosphere as his camera's prowls the mostly working class neighborhood in Ipswitch, establishing characters as the initial TV announcements of the discovery of a corpse begin to morph into free verse recitative.

"London Road", Rufus Norris's remarkable film version of The National Theatre's radical musical fascinates.

Written by Alecky Blythe (book and lyrics) and Adam Cork (music and lyrics), "London Road" was a runaway hit, SRO at the National Theatre's Cottesloe theatre in London, and from the brilliance of the film, we can see why.

Set around London Road (Ipswich, Suffolk, England) in 2006–2008, during the time of the murders of five prostitutes, and the arrest and conviction of serial killer Steve Wright (dubbed the Ipswich Ripper), the musical eschews portraying the killer and his victims, focusing on the effect the murders had on the neighborhood. In response to the national attention, locals band together and spruce up their homes, holding a street fair and garden competition.

The musical becomes a meditation on survival and healing. The neighbors restore their street and their sense of security. Most of the sex workers quit the game.

Characters include residents, woman working the oldest profession and the media covering the murders.

A TV crew is the device for their remarks to camera.The end titles are underscored with the actual interviews Blythe conducted, and we recognize the under-structure for the lyrics/

One of the early bravura 'songs', "Everyone is Very Very Nervous" established the paranoia in the district before the killer was apprehended.

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The "songs" are what the authors term "verbatim style"- words taken from transcribed interviews, verbatim, every "um", hesitation and glottal stop mined for its rhythmic syncopated gold.

Composer Adam Cork found his melodies in the pitch and meter of the transcribed voices. I kept thinking of composer Steve Reich's repetitions.

The result of this surgical reproduction of everyday speech is a verbal equivalent of the groundbreaking choreography of Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, whose collection of everyday physical movements (pushing, shoving, falling, stopping short) supplanted classical ballet technique.

British Working Class English (Estuary and Cockney dialects) is rich with musicality, and it is acutely reproduced in choral splendor by the ensemble, which portrays their parts with Kitchen Sync realism.

Tom Hardy, an old pal of director Rufus Norris, played a character not in the original play. Hardy's cabbie, a rather chilling crime fan, drives a nervous woman home while opining about what sort of man would commit those murders. "‘He’s a white male aged between 23 and 47... He would have tortured animals".

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His character was carved out of the ensemble piece "Shaving Scratch".

Headlined by guest stars Olivia Colman ("Locke', "Broadchurch") Anita Dobson ('Eastender") and Tom Hardy, the original 11 cast member returned to do the film, surrounded by 60 actors, and extras including residents from London Road, and Bexley, the actual location. (FYI playwright Blythe appears in a cameo as a BBC Newsreader.)

Scruffy single loner Dodge (Paul Thornley) comes under the audiences suspicion early on.

There's a matter of fact quality to the transcript driven lyrics. No PC here.

The general paranoia is articulated in the spiky "You automatically think it could be him," sung by two schoolgirls (Meg Hateley Suddaby and Eloise Laurence (star of Norris' riveting 2012 first film "Broken").

Their repeated vocal mannerisms and inappropriate nervous laughter punctuates a large ensemble piece in various locations, scrutinizing every man they pass, and introducing Tom Hardy's cabbie, who they spy through the rear window of their bus.

"And That's When it All Started" describes the police cordon around the accuses murderer’s house. The dour "Good Evening, Welcome" takes on the first neighborhood meeting.

We hear the neighbors view of their street, first the appearance of the prostitutes and the cruising car-bound johns ("curb rollers") then the post arrest police cordon's, hecklers and TV crews.

"Ten Weeks" details the psychological mood, 'everybody would rather it all went away, 'Everybody must have sleepless nights, I know i do.". An older woman puts her house up for sale.

"Shaving Scratch", intercut with Christmas music, expresses the pub clients' speculation about his identity.

"Cellular Material" (an on air euphemism for sperm) gets into forensics. "I can't use the world (sperm) before teatime."

"It's a Wicked Bloody World" is sung by a morbid mob, "Just waiting to get a glimpse really", "Yeah look at this, look at this". ”It's 'orrible isn't it, eh"? ready to storm the van bringing the murderer to court.

Kate Fleetwood (Julie in the stage production) plays the waifish, possibly homeless prostitute, Vicky. A trio of sex workers explain they've left the street, and regular clients keep them going in" We've All Stopped”.

Olivia Colman plays Julie, the civic-minded mother who organizes the Garden contest. On the dark side, Julie's so angry at the Prostitute's use of on her street, “I’d like to just shake his hand and say thanks very much for getting rid of them." (Well, she amends, not actually say it but I think it.)

Julie voices what other neighbors hint at. Horrified naturally at the murders, they nevertheless welcome the result. After police barricades and National media scrutiny, their street is back to normal, better than ever actually, with a resilient community spirit and social workers support for the retired sex workers.

During the giddy " Everyone Smile" and the reprise of “London Road's In Bloom", Vicky wanders through the street party; a little girl hands her a balloon.

Alecky Blythe's earlier Verbatim Theatre piece, "The Girlfriend Experience, " was edited from 100 hours of recordings Blythe conducted with a group of prostitutes. The working girls urged Blythe to research Ipswitch, in the time before truck driver Steve Wright was arrested. That research became the fodder for their play when Blythe was paired up with composer Adam Cork at a 2007 invitational National Theatre workshop. Spectacular!

Robin Menken