Community care: The ensemble cast of Alecky Blythe's dazzling "London Road"
Oh good: a musical based around the murder of prostitutes by a serial killer. It's enough to make the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole operas sound refined.
I am hugely glad that I didn't cave in to prissy good taste and follow the urge to stay away. London Road at the National's Cottesloe is a cracking piece of musical drama: touching and telling in equal measure.
Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork transport us to the triste suburbs of London Road in Ipswich, where Steven Wright, who murdered five prostitutes in the winter of 2006, lived at the time he strangled the drug-addicted women, a crime he denied throughout his trial.
London Road doesn't delve into the banal horror of their deaths, but explores the reactions of a community to events which bring out every instinct in human nature, from kindness to prurience, evasion to vengeance, but most of all, the desire to triumph over the grimmest horrors with a renewed commitment to the small delights of life. The doughty and sometimes daft London Road garden committee throws its energies into reviving its civic institutions, beginning with hanging baskets: "Begonias, impatiens and things."
Out of this modestly dramatic material, Cork and Blythe weave something touching the sublime. This is verbatim theatre, part of a vogue for scripts made up of documented speech from Blythe's recorded interviews with Ipswich residents after the killings. She has an unerring ear for the peculiarities of the spoken word, with no "er", "um" or contradiction omitted.
For the first ten minutes, I wondered if we might be in that bit of Mike Leigh territory where middle-class playwrights adopt the vernacular of the ill-educated and the result can be very squeamish indeed. Here the ensemble parts are so cleverly balanced, the moods of a community both traumatised by serial killing and absorbed in the minutiae of every day so shrewdly recorded that it works a treat.
Adam Cork's haunting music is brilliantly performed by a six-piece band encompassing choral strings, fugues and mourning chants. The comic villains of the piece are the skuzzy news journalists, always easy targets of satire, but it is saved from Guardianland by Blythe's ability to capture the clichés of every social group she portrays.