Review: London Road (Canadian Stage)

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Canadian Stage presents Alecky Blythe’s quirky verbatim musical experiment London Road in Toronto.

In 2006, the bodies of five prostitutes were discovered in Ipswich, England. A man named Steve Wright, of 79 London Road, was convicted of the murders and the glare of the media spotlight was cast on this nondescript street in the quiet, rural town. In the aftermath of the trial playwright Alecky Blythe conducted extensive interviews with the residents of London Road. The recordings of those interviews are the basis for London Road.

London Road is an example of verbatim theatre; a documentary-like form of theatre where the script of a play is edited together from transcripts of exact words spoken by real-life individuals.

London Road takes the concept one step further; the actors are coached to perform the dialogue exactly as it sounds on the original interview recordings, matching the speech styles of the original speakers complete with inflections, pauses, stutters, hems and haws. As if that sort of precise mimicking didn’t present enough of a challenge, composer Adam Cork has also set the dialogue to music.

When I first heard of the concept I was curious as to whether they could pull it off. The musicalization of verbatim dialogue can easily come off as a gimmick. Remember when Auto-Tune exploded in popularity a few years ago and resulted in a string of internet memes such as the Bed Intruder Song? But, can the technique actually result in a cohesive piece of theatre?

London Road is essentially a stylized, staged documentary; a sort of live-action cinema verité. From capturing the minutia of day to day life on the street with the opening number about the neighbourhood’s hanging garden festival, it builds around the pervading anxiety of the street’s residents as the killer remains on the loose. Finally, it climaxes with their reaction to the media frenzy around Wright’s capture and the ensuing trial.

Along the way we meet a wide assortment of the quirky, idiosyncratic townsfolk. They often address the audience directly and we get to know them through the verbatim performances of Blythe’s interviews. The characters are all incredibly average, borderline boring people. Though their dialogue is occasionally charming and often funny the characters often bleed into one another so they become almost indistinguishable from each other.

Cork’s score features a remarkable degree of musicality. The composer underlines the natural cadence of the subjects’ speech patterns so effectively that at times it’s difficult to tell whether a performer is actually singing. The score has an almost operatic quality. It features repetition of simple melodic lines, dense layering and counterpoint. It reminded me of a minimalist modern opera like Nixon in China. Hats off to the incredibly talented cast members; under the guidance of musical director Reza Jacobs they deftly pull off the virtuosic performances required for the difficult score.

The entire exercise is very clever and seamlessly executed but by the end of both the first and second acts the schtick starts to wear thin. I thought the show could use some editing. I don’t think it needed an intermission; it would have worked better as a 90-minute one act show where they could sustain the energy the whole way through.

In the end, I didn’t really love the piece. It was interesting and quirky enough to entertain me for a while but I quickly grew tired of it. However, I definitely appreciated the level of difficulty and talent involved.

Details:

  • London Road is playing from January 19 – February 9, 2014 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts’ Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street E. in Toronto.
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
  • Tickets $24 – $99
  • Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online at canadianstage.com.

Photo by David Hou.

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