A Little Night Musical

The National’s dramatisation of the Ipswich murders is touching and telling in equal measure

Theatre

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.

“They all watch it, don’t they?” is the self-justifying chorus of the hacks. There’s a slight drag in the last 15 minutes and a guilt-salving collection by the cast for a prostitutes’ charity at the end, acknowledgement that some of the victims’ families have been uncomprehending or downright critical of the undertaking. But the humanity and dogged optimism of London Road puts musical theatre on another level. If this doesn’t end up with a slew of theatrical awards, I’ll eat my begonias.

A comedy of errors greeted my attempt to see Ibsen’s late drama Little Eyolf at the Jermyn Street Theatre. I arrived a full 75 seconds late, but no admittance was granted. Fair enough, you might say, but stuff does happen on the way to the West End; it’s a bit Prussian to have absolutely no arrangement for stragglers. The next day, they cut the interval time — and locked me out again.

So all I can fairly report is that this overwrought saga of jaded husband, needy wife, child tragedy and trouble up t’fjords had an absorbing first act.

Imogen Stubbs excels as Rita, possibly the most demanding wife in Ibsen (which is saying something), a woman so erotically obsessed by her husband that she can’t live with the flawed, blocked, middle-aged human being he has become.

The play languishes in the minor league for good reason. Unsuitable sibling longings are heavily signposted, the supernatural element isn’t far off Norwegian panto, with just as many laughs, and the script is  impossibly wordy. Still, Doreen Mantle chills as the Rat Wife, a pied piperess of foreboding, and  Jonathan Cullen as Alfred is a flinching spouse with something to hide.

The Jermyn intends to revive more discarded classics: a promising idea if it can attract a cast like this. Do take a stopwatch though.

Family outings to Shakespeare can be a cross to bear rather than an elevating pleasure, a thought that hit me as I shovelled my under-twelves into the car on a three-line whip to see John Dove’s All’s Well that Ends Well.

We hadn’t done a Globe outing en masse before and I can’t think why. From the strolling musicians and modern-day groundlings, it’s unpompous enough for even the most antsy child.

Samuel Johnson noted that All’s Well contained “many delightful scenes, though not sufficiently probable, and some happy characters, not new nor produced by any deep knowledge of human nature”.

And alack, Dr Johnson was spot-on. The play has led directors to emphasise the morality tale of patriarchy and sexual deception, or camp them up in fairytale fashion, like Marianne Elliott’s clever production at the National recently.

Even for the great stage trickster Shakespeare, All’s Well is a hard one to make tolerably credible. A story in which a scorned Helena manages to seduce her unwilling husband Bertram without his knowledge, orchestrate a crucial clandestine exchange of rings and get herself impregnated by him, all in one night, is a big ask.

Dove’s production is quick and mischievous, and at its strongest in capturing the light and darkness which dwell side by side in the play. So minor characters are given full scope, sniping, boasting and pointlessly outdoing one another.

Sam Crane’s Bertram is played as a Prince Harry (of the Windsor variety), proud and immature with some military swagger on the side. Ellie Piercy as Helena has a lovely mixture of sweetness and cunning: enough to make you wonder what she sees in ghastly Bertram, but hey, that’s the plot. 

My small co-critics relished James Garnon’s Parolles, a goatee-bearded dupe, pop-eyed in blank horror when his schemes go wrong.  They thought the play was “fun”, a sparing verdict, but after two-and-a-half hours of unfidgety behaviour as sweet to mine ear as anything Big Will wrote in the sonnets.

The play’s the thing, but if you really must take your young spry to Shakespeare in London, the Globe’s the place to start.