Tag Archives: Community

“The Events” by David Greig

at the Traverse Theatre, Sunday 4th August 2013

*Originally reviewed for A Younger Theatre*

Let’s get this straight: David Greig’s The Events is not ‘about’ the Norwegian massacre committed by Anders Breivik. It uses them as a source of inspiration and attempts to interrogate many of the questions surrounding it but never actively refers to its details, instead preferring to fictionalise an ‘event’ of its own so we may try to understand what happens to communities when these kind of atrocities occur. It’s a lyrical, knotty play which, through trying to comprehend, suggests that comprehension is impossible.

The director of the show, Ramin Gray, suggests in the programme note that “Every act of theatre revolves around a transaction between two communities: the performers onstage and the improvised community that constitute what we call an audience”. Continue reading “The Events” by David Greig

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“London Road”

at the Olivier Theatre, Wednesday 5th September 2012

When I first saw London Road in its original Cottesloe run last year, it was clear it marked a major shift in the way we look at both musicals and theatre in general in Britain (and also demonstrated my rather lazy and shoddy criticism of the time). The very notion of shaping a musical out of verbatim speech was exciting enough on its own, let alone the support of Adam Cork’s deceptively simple orchestration and Rufus Norris’ striking staging. On second viewing, the complexity of London Road is brought to the fore, as the themes Alecky Blythe toys with present themselves in all their intricate glory.

The show (which, if you weren’t aware, tells the story of the community who had to deal with the consequences of the Ipswich murders in 2006) really does mark a shift in the cultural perception of what the musical genre can achieve. My limited knowledge of musicals allows me to know that Rent, for example, was seen as modern due to its contemplation of – for want of a better word – gritty, real-life themes, while Matilda might be seen to be modern due to its demonstration that songs in musicals don’t just have to be poems set to music. London Road, then, ramps up the ante by mixing these two signifiers of modernity in contemporary musicals, being genuinely ‘true’ to life and replicating speech patterns exactly.

So, first let’s look at the notion of verisimilitude presented by Blythe’s concept; over the course of two years following the Ipswich murders, she interviewed the inhabitants of London Road and the surrounding area, recording their take on the events as they unfolded. These words were then interpreted by Cork in song form and the characters replicated on stage. But though these words were actually said and the events actually happened, the idea of truth in London Road is a decidedly woolly one, bringing to the fore the general issues which surround the word in the first place. This is an edited, interpreted, and – ultimately – staged version of events, and so could be argued to be just as fictitious as, say, The Lion King. There’s also the fact that these conversations would never have happened if Blythe hadn’t asked the questions, so before the musical was even created there was an element of performance.

More than any other musical, then, London Road constantly forces us to be aware of the tension between truth and fiction, reality and performance. We constantly imagine these characters in their original situation, and wonder how true-to-life the actors playing them are. Like George Sr. Bluth’s surrogate in Arrested Development, the actor is a kind of puppet, acting as a conduit through which the character’s words can be disseminated to this large audience.

Then there’s the overarching story, which is also true. Not even based on something. It happened. Whereas, for example, Shakespeare took a version of history and made it his own, Blythe puts events on stage in their original context and without changing the story.

I’m running the risk of seeming negative here, so let me lay my cards down by saying that this is what makes London Road so completely unique. While musicals are often seen as an escape from the pressures of life, taking us far away into a land of fancy, Blythe forces us to sit up and look at what happened to this community and the people within it. She shows that musicals can tackle serious subjects if they are used in the right way.

There’s always something vaguely amusing about verbatim theatre, as we don’t simply listen to what is being said but also to how it is being said. The hesitations and nuances of everyday speech are just as important as the words which make sense, and reveal just as much. I think I’d go so far as to argue that Blythe is sort of doing for musicals what Pinter did for plays; he showed that theatre didn’t just have to be grand, sweeping dialogue and rhetoric, but could say just as much in silence and hesitation. By introducing pauses into his work, Pinter presented a more – and here’s that word again – ‘real’ version of human speech on the stage, meaning we leave the theatre after his plays listening to the cadences and caesuras in our friends’ dialogue. Cork and Blythe, then, have achieved a similar outcome, for by making the “um”s and “ah”s just as important in their songs as the complete sentences, they comment on the sheer depth of understanding you can glean from just listening to someone talking. Musicality is found in the most pedestrian of phrases, and laughs are harmonised so they sound like a kind of human church bell. I say this is indicative of a shift in the way we view the potential of the musical genre because – like Minchin and others – Blythe and Cork reveal that songs which mimic dialogue and fully-thought-out sentences can be just as – if not more – rewarding than those which repeat phrases and sound ridiculous when spoken normally.

I also wonder whether there’s a slight, covert dig at the commercial nature of big-budget musicals here, too. Some may argue that London Road allows very little creativity from its actors, who have to recreate the songs and speech exactly the same every night so as to be true to the original (with a few new faces in the Olivier cast, this is certainly shown to be the case; voices may be slightly different but the intonation is still spot on). But then, new cast members for many big West End musicals have to undergo just the same process, so that rather than creating a new character which works for them they have to copy their predecessor exactly so that new audience members get the same production as with the previous cast, until slowly the production becomes so bland it feels like you’re consuming polystyrene. London Road, on the other hand, has actors listening to the original so they can discover nuance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the fact the cast has to replicate speech exactly means hidden depths of emotion can be mined over a long period of time.

Here, too, the words take precedence, and Adam Cork’s smart orchestration means it never overshadows what’s being said. Unlike many musicals, which create epic scores to cover the fact the lyrics are trite, London Road uses music as a way of supporting, rather than ‘enhancing’ the singing. It all sounds relatively electronic (again, limited musical knowledge coming in to play here), in contrast to the hyper-reality presented in the text, and soars at the end of songs like “Everyone is Very Very Nervous” and “London Road in Bloom”. Remarkably, the music has been going round my head non-stop for the past few days; the hallmark of good songwriting.

There’s also something peculiarly Classical about London Road; by focussing on presenting big themes to a large audience, the show offers a kind of catharsis, for both audience and real-life characters.Though the vast majority of us sitting watching the production can’t claim to have been directly affected by the murders, we can all still remember them and their media coverage. The show is, in a way, a collective purging of emotion, as the issues the characters have are aired and we’re able to see the side of the story we didn’t see on the news, allowing us to readjust our views on the events. This democratic aspect is heightened in the larger-scale, Greek-style Olivier theatre, which places real people at the heart of the narrative. These Classical allusions, then, act in direct contrast to the modern presentation and the progressive ideas behind the production, so that, like truth versus fiction, the tension between the two is constantly played out.

On top of all this experimentation with form, London Road also brings some intriguing themes to light. As mentioned above, the piece shows the remarkable strength of the human spirit in the face of tough challenges and the power of community. The inhabitants of London Road have to cope with a gigantic media invasion, which, in a way, is merely a precursor to the huge invasion of privacy the entire populace has seen over the past five years. Katrina Lindsay’s simple design highlights this, using projections and cameras to record and play back live the actions of reporters and citizens alike, reflecting that, though we love to hate the media, we “all still watch the news and buy the papers”. We are all as guilty as each other.

The fact a small, ensemble cast (who are all brilliant, incidentally) plays dozens of characters between them brings to light the small-town mentality of these characters. Blythe presents both their good qualities and their prejudices (“We hoped it was an immigrant from nish-noff land”), forcing us to come to our own conclusions. One of the most interesting songs describes how all the men in Ipswich at the time became instantly demonized (“You automatically think it could be him”), and segregation between the sexes became more pronounced. Once again, contrasts and tensions are exploited to ensure we are constantly kept on our toes.

I realise I’ve talked very little about the production itself in this piece, but that’s because the reason London Road is so special is due to its form (and the fact much has already been written about its presentation). I doubt another musical like this will be created in the near future, but it clearly shows that the idea of what a musical is has begun to shift to fit the multiplicity of the twenty-first century. Along with MatildaLondon Road proves that musicals don’t have to be lazily written and rely on big-budgets, catering to the lowest common denominator, but can in fact spark reflection and discussion.

“Detroit” by Lisa D’Amour

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 11th July 2012

Life in suburbia is something many of us have had experience of, and contains within it a conflict (most notably tha between the city and the country) which makes it perfect for theatrical presentation. In Detroit, Lisa D’Amour presents a searing satire on modern life in the suburbs and produces some laugh-your-head-off moments, but the overall narrative doesn’t seem to support the final ten minutes and much of the time it feels like Clybourne Park without the race issues.

Sharon and Kenny have just moved in opposite (at least I think opposite, the staging is a little confused) Ben and Mary, who are a little bemused by how “weird” their new neighbours are. They bond over some farcical mishaps, however, before Sharon and Kenny tempt Ben and Mary into “starting again”, like them. The play finishes with the two hippies wreaking destruction (*spoiler alert* they burn the house down) and scarpering, after which Frank arrives on the scene to explain the history of the community and the aspirations of the developers (“to start a conversation”, which clearly never happened).

It’s clear that these final few speeches of Frank’s are intended to support and tie up the rest of the play, but unfortunately D’Amour does not probe deeply enough or ask enough questions to make this obvious. The narrative is altogether too thin to support this argument and it becomes less of a critique of suburbia than an indictment of middle-class values and hypocrisy.

All this, however, is negligible compared to the pure wit of the piece. D’Amour paints a picture of these people to stunning accuracy and the dialogue remains a constant stream of jokes which hit the audience with wave after wave of uncontrollable laughter. Sharon talks about her bafflement at the “new internet” and Ben participates in an online community called “BritLand” where he is known as “Ian”. And for all their talking, these characters rarely have genuine conversations which amount to anything important. They are all so out-of-touch and self-absorbed that to do so is unthinkable.

Austin Pendleton (of Steppenwolf fame, who produced the premiere of the play in America) directs his five-strong cast brilliantly, teasing out nuanced and truthful performances. Will Adamsdale and Clare Dunne as Kenny and Sharon maintain an adolescent nonchalance and never seem menacing, even though their final act aligns them somewhat with symbolism of the devil. Stuart McQuarrie and Justine Mitchell initially seem their polar opposites, the former being a banker by trade and the latter supremely conscientious, but after time it’s clear they are merely Kenny and Sharon later on in life and with more money.

Kevin Depinet’s simple set allows the words to take centre stage, with the contrasting facades of the house looming over the action. Mark Henderson’s lighting shows the changing times of day without being overbearing and Anthony Capel and Matthew Scott’s music becomes integral to the plot in later scenes. Under Pendleton’s direction, Detroit is a comedy first and foremost and a social comment second, and though a deeper questioning of suburban life would have been welcome, D’Amour is shown here to be a master of comedy.

Pinterest board here: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/detroit-by-lisa-d-amour/

“London Road”

book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe

music and lyrics by Adam Cork

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Saturday 23rd July 2011

Verbatim theatre is still a relatively new form, and has yet to truly make its mark on mainstream theatre. Amazingly, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork have brought the idea to the National, and added an extra layer of their own. Putting the words of their interviewees on Ipswich’s London Road to music creates a quite extraordinary effect which at times is truly haunting and at others great fun.

This new ‘musical’ (if you can call it that) follows the inhabitants of London Road throughout the period of the Ipswich murder and Steve Wright’s subsequent arrest. Strikingly, the focus is not the murders; it is a story of a community coming together, pulling through in hard times, and the invasion of privacy by the world’s media. The words collected by Blythe open our eyes to the viewpoints of those living in the area, with one character saying she’d “shake [Wright’s] hand”, and Cork’s music injects extra layers of emotion, reflecting the community aspect of the text.

Rufus Norris’ production is wonderfully understated, forcing us to consider the words being said rather than the production itself, and Katrina Lindsay’s design reflects the rebuilding of this neighbourhood. The end of the first act, which sees the stage covered in police tape, acts in stark contrast with the hanging baskets at the very end of the play.

The ensemble of eleven actors all multi-role, playing people on the street and members of the media. Kate Fleetwood’s organiser of “London Road in Bloom” is realised with alarming detail, and the relationship between Clare Burt and Hal Fowler is hilarious to watch. All walks of life are represented to here, and the verbatim nature of the text means we can actually see them on stage.

London Road is the most original musical I’ve ever seen. It brings verbatim theatre to a whole new level, making us look at the events in a whole new light. It doesn’t deserve the negative press it has received, for this is an optimistic and wholly inoffensive production. Thank goodness the National Theatre decided to extend its run, allowing more people to see this quite remarkable piece of theatre.