“Experiment,” wrote Cole Porter in his 1933 song of the same name, “Make it your motto day and night.” That’s certainly the thinking behind the National Theater’s teaming of verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork. Their controversial “London Road” takes accounts of local reactions to the real-life serial killing of five prostitutes in 2006 and painstakingly turns their precise words and speech patterns into choral musical theater. The technical achievement of director Rufus Norris’ bravura cast is beyond praise, but the fascinating experiment gradually reveals serious flaws.
Relatives of the late women denounced the show as exploitative long before it opened. In fact, the piece depicts neither the women nor their killer. Instead, Blythe focuses instead on other residents of London Road, Ipswich, the street where the murderer lived and where the murders took place.
Sequences from her interviews with more than 60 local people conducted over a 2 1/2 year period have been edited together into a detailed and surprisingly warm portrait of a local community coming together in adversity. They form a “Neighborhood Watch” program that continues after the trial.
As one of the first British playwrights to develop U.S. writer Anna Deveare Smith’s “verbatim theater” technique, Blythe has experience in this arena. Her breakthrough “Come Out, Eli” was a carefully edited transcription of reactions of people in a street where a siege had recently taken place. But the development here is Adam Cork’s elevation of text into (mostly) sung speech.
The compositional ground rule is not to refashion the text. Every sentence structure, every falter, is reproduced, leading to seemingly proasaic lyrics like “Everyone was very, very nervous and, erm… unsure of everything, basically.”
Still more intriguingly, Cork’s score consists not of his own melodies but of the notation of rises and falls in pitch of the words as originally recorded. He’s not the first to do this — Janacek’s operas including “Jenufa” and “Katya Kabanova” had word-setting wedded to the Czech vernacular — but no one has so single-mindedly driven a piece in this manner.
The cast starts out precisely delineating the sing-song nature of everyday speech. Cork’s score, backed by a six-piece band, gradually widens into multiple repeats of recognizable phrases to build audible sequences and ensemble choral passages. Both his forward-chugging rhythms and rippling underscoring echo John Adams and Philip Glass, who also use repetition to dramatic effect.
But the more he develops the material musically, the more problems arise. Actual words are not rewritten for musical gain, but the more shaped — and thus editorialized — the phrases become, the more the piece sounds like the work of writers and less like those of the original speakers. That contradicts the rules of Blythe’s game.
It also exhibits an increasingly uneasy air of detachment. A faithful representation of the words and views of the interviewed residents is self-evidently the aim. Yet highlighting individual phrases from ordinary speech puts people’s unwitting use of cliche and their unguarded opinions under severely unnatural scrutiny. There’s a world of difference between someone confiding such an opinion to an interviewer with whom a relationship has been developed and having that opinion dramatically isolated and repeated for a judgmental audience. As in the work of Mike Leigh, laughter that should be with characters is often at them.
Learning, let alone singing, such melodically and rhythmically complex material will have been nightmarishly difficult, but under Rufus Norris’ scrupulously unshowy direction, the ease of the 11-member cast switching among multiple roles proves initially compelling.
Ultimately, however, the singularity of the achievement is its stumbling block. The novelty finally gives way to concern. And when the painfully prolonged, charged silence of three prostitutes staring defiantly at the audience in memory of the dead women is the production’s most powerful moment, something is amiss. The pioneering “London Road” presents a strikingly innovative journey, but ultimately, it’s not leading anywhere.