Musicals we love: London Road

In the latest in our series on writers' favourite shows, Mark Lawson explains his potentially controversial choice of this verbatim musical about the Ipswich serial murders

Favourite musicals tend to have a few decades on the clock: people who revere Guys and Dolls, Kiss Me Kate, Oklahoma or one of the Sondheims were often born long after the shows were premiered. But I am – perhaps daringly – going to nominate a show that is still only three years old.

My choice of London Road – text by Alecky Blythe, music by Adam Cork, directed by Rufus Norris – rests on the rarity, for a contemporary theatregoer, of being present at the moment of a dazzling innovation in musical theatre. Other shows that radicalised structure or tone – Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar!, Sondheim's Assassins – have been introduced to most of us through revivals, by which time their original aspects were familiar.

But I was there at the National Theatre in April 2011 when London Road introduced an extraordinary new form of sung drama. The pre-opening omens had not been good, with media controversy over the fact that bleak and very recent subject matter – the murders of five women in Ipswich in 2006 by the lorry driver Steve Wright – had been turned into a musical.

However, such coverage – as well as reflecting some understandable sensitivity in the area – made the mistake of presuming that the musical is a trivialising form, as if Wright and the victims were going to be parading in chorus lines and belting out thumping rhymed numbers, like Adolf Hitler in Mel Brooks's The Producers but without the irony.

In fact, as those present at the early performances found, the characters were – crucially – not Wright and the victims but the residents of the thoroughfare (the title address) in which the killer lived. And, rather than writing traditional lyrics, Blythe was transferring to sung drama a technique she had pioneered in earlier speech plays such as The Girlfriend Experience and Do We Look Like Refugees?!: verbatim dialogue, in which actors reproduce exactly lines from transcribed interviews, complete – in a theatrical reversal of the rules of Radio 4's Just a Minute – with every hesitation, repetition and deviation. This uncanny naturalism is achieved by the cast initially synchronising their speech with tape recordings played through earpieces.

At the performance I saw back in 2011, this laboriously practised spontaneity from the performers went unrewarded by at least one audience member, who, after an especially inarticulate riff from a character who started a phrase several times, lamented to her neighbour: "The problem with coming to previews is that the actors sometimes haven't learned their lines."

The skill of Blythe and Cork was in selecting which sentences from the verbatim text to set. The resulting numbers range from the tense – Everyone Is Very, Very Nervous, as the killings begin – to the lushly melodious London Road in Bloom, in which the residents hymn the hanging baskets which, raised from and lowered to the floor, were one of the most powerful images in Norris's production. Another memorable sequence dramatised the media scrum outside the court as the verdicts were revealed.

London Road is currently being filmed – one of Norris's last outside projects before he takes over as artistic director at the National in 2015 – but however successful that project is, those who saw the pioneering theatre version will always be the lucky ones.

More from the Musicals we love series: Follies, Annie and Sunshine on Leith


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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