BY SANDY STAGGS
In his swan song with the Shoestring Players, retiring Director of Theatre Jimm Cox helmed his final show this past weekend “London Road,” a phantasmagorical, avant-garde musical that is unlike any show this critic has ever experienced.
This landmark production (the U.S. premiere) is the culmination of 45 years Coxx has taught in the USC system (including Columbia and Coastal Carolina). And “London Road” is one of the countless British imports (as well as this season’s opener “Let the Right One In”) that he has brought across the Atlantic on his numerous trips to the United Kingdom.
Each summer, Coxx leads select students to the Rose Theatre in London where they represent the United States in the International Youth Arts Festival. And, of course, they are exposed to the trendy shows in the West End such as this unique experiment first staged in 2011 at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe theatre in London.
Set in the years 2006-2008 in the city of Ipswich, the story revolves around the case of Steve Wright, i.e. the Suffolk Strangler, who murdered five prostitutes in the town’s red light district on London Road.
However, the focus is not on Wright per se, but the community’s reaction to the case and the media’s coverage of it.
With music and lyrics by Adam Cork and book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe, “London Road” is considered “verbatim theatre” with the lines and libretto performed nearly precisely as the recorded interviews Blythe conducted with London Road residents during the killing spree and in the aftermath of the trial. Wright was sentenced to life in prison after police connected him to the victims through DNA and fiber evidence.
In this willfully bizarre pseudo-documentary musical, every cadence, pause, “uh,” stutter, and speech pattern is replicated by this 18-member ensemble and likewise the recordings are replicated in this unorthodox score.
Admittedly, I was dumbfounded by the opening scene at a neighborhood community watch meeting as an actor greets every attendee with an endless and monotonous “Good Evening, Welcome.”
Then the tense changes from present to past and we realize these folks are being interviewed by someone. Dialogue is repeated and stammered, lyrics are repeated and the casual theatergoer may believe the actors have stumbled with their lines. And there are few melodies to latch onto.
But once the narrative launches in earnest, it’s difficult for your attention to stray.
Before the killer is apprehended, the neighbors, especially the female characters, relay their fears about a murderer on the loose in “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous” and “It Could Be Him,” which is set in Stella’s Coffee Shop or in this Americanized version, a Starbucks. Some express their views on the prostitutes that have taken over their street, whole others lament on their outright lack of empathy for the victims.
Later, they complain about the inconvenience of having their neighborhood cordoned off and the media frenzy that bombards them once Wright is arrested.
But after the repercussions of the murders, the community vows to clean up and beautify their neighborhood resulting in an active spirit of pride by uniting and even hosting a hanging basket completion (“London Road in Bloom”).
This musical was the darling of London theatre critics, particularly for its innovative approach to storytelling and the controversial source material. But here in America where guns and murders are plentiful, we have become almost desensitized to serial killers.
Do I like this musical? Honestly, I am still on the fence about the show, but not this production.
The accents in this true ensemble piece are superb. And it’s an incredibly complex score to sing (Joy Finch is music director) with prosaic cacophonies of overlapping lyrics and non-melodic numbers. The dozens of props are first-rate (especially the BBC and ITV microphones) and the group works together seamlessly in realizing the myriad locations.
The Union Jack floor set design by Barry Whitfield incorporates the lower blue triangles of the flag as physical cutouts of the stage floor with the orchestra pit exposed below. This allows for creative planes and blocking for Coxx, but I was distracted more than once as the actors got very close to the edges of these triangular abysses.
But credit Coxx and this dutiful cast as trailblazers and exposing and enlightening us in the States to a cerebral work of art.
The cast includes Chelesea Boone, John Marshall Branham, Damion Deslaurier, McCray Earls, John Gibbs, Trey Jackson, Najee Joyner, Jenna Lawson, Stanley Martin, Kyle McIntyre, Jordan Montemayor, Hope Phillips, Kat Powell, Harrison Reed, Gabrielle Sassone, Dexter Simmons, Gabe Troski and Jillian Wynn.
Unfortunately, this musical only ran for one weekend. There is, however, a film version starring Tom Hardy and directed by Rufus Norris of the original production.
A contingent from the Shoestring Players will travel to the UK this summer with an original devised theatre piece and will be presenting previews before they embark. Carolina Curtain Call will post the dates as soon as they are announced.