London Road: a Musical

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 11 June
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Describing this production too briefly would probably put off most people. It’s a musical based on the real-life murders of five prostitutes in the London Road area of Ipswich in 2006 – that’s fine, if a bit dark. But it’s also verbatim theatre – all the words are taken from interviews that writer Alecky Blythe conducted with residents of London Road and are performed as precise copies of the original voices – the intonation, pauses, repetitions, accents, ums and ahs are all learned by the actors. And then a level of stylisation is added in the form of songs and song-like sections that perhaps most closely resemble poetry.

All of which could have added up to something unwatchable in the wrong hands. But this is more than just watchable, it’s actually pretty good, though the verbatim dialogue does take some getting used to. Key to this is the excellent script. Blythe took what were presumably many many hours of many interviews and cut together a story of a community both haunted and hopeful, with plenty of those small humorous moments that real life serves up. But a good script is nothing without a good cast, and here Bristol Old Vic Theatre School really delivers.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Once again the Studio Theatre was used to good effect, with the stage area and audience chairs arranged at the start as if for something like a town hall meeting. The cast milled about a tea trolley making cups of instant coffee and settled around a cheap folding table and a noticeboard covered with flyers. As the live orchestra on the balcony started up and hush fell over the small but eclectic audience, we learned that this was a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, that the London Road residents want to wrestle something good out of the horror they have lived through.

The cast all play multiple roles, fleshing out the story to include visiting journalists, police, prostitutes and other townsfolk, but they have clear principal characters who make up the Neighbourhood Watch committee – concerned citizens who obviously had plenty to say to Blythe and were trying to be positive for the future. This positive spin shines through the story, though it’s hard not to wonder what the tone might have been if a different set of people had opened up to Blythe.

With so many changes in character with just a subtle adjustment of costume or props, it’s perhaps little wonder that there was an occasional slip into comic overacting. And I couldn’t help but be irritated to spot that the first photographer depicted carried both a Canon camera and a Nikon, which is really not realistic. But that’s a pernickity detail that my being a bit of a photography geek taught me! More importantly, the “real words” added a certain something to the show – it felt more realistic than the average scripted drama despite all the repetition and singing.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Though it is very much an ensemble cast, I’d like to give special mention to Bethan Nash who was excellent both in her main role as Julie, organiser of the local “In bloom” gardening competition, but even more excellent in the short scene of an interview with three prostitutes, which ended with Nash appearing near tears despite having said very little. That scene was exceptional and I don’t wonder that it is the one section of Blythe’s original recording that was selected to be played toward the end of the show.

For all my praise, this is an odd show that probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re willing or even eager to experience something a bit different, I would encourage you to try it.

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.

Prepare for tears

Red Dog
by Louis de Bernières

This is the sweetest most wonderful book I have read in some time. I think it’s sort-of aimed at children, at least I hope it is else I will have to have criticisms about some of the slightly condescending explanations and I don’t want to criticise such a lovely lovely book.

The best summary of this book is the one supplied by the author himself:

“In early 1998 I went to Perth in Western Australia in order to attend the literature festival, and part of the arrangement was that I should go to Karratha to do their first ever literary dinner. Karratha is a mining town a long way further north. The landscape is extraordinary, being composed of vast heaps of dark red earth and rock poking out of the never-ending bush. I imagine that Mars must have a similar feel to it. I went exploring and discovered the bronze statue to Red Dog outside the town of Dampier. I felt straight away that I had to find out more about this splendid dog. A few months later I returned to Western Australia and spent two glorious weeks driving around collecting Red Dog stories and visiting the places that he knew, writing up the text as I went along. I hope my cat never finds out that I have written a story to celebrate the life of a dog.”

Red Dog was a Red Cloud kelpie, which is an Australian breed of sheepdog, and lived in the 1970s in and around Dampier, at that time mostly a mining town. De Bernières has lightly fictionalised his account but based it on those stories he collected and it does read like a collected folklore, though there is nothing unbelievable or magical about it. Red Dog was simply a dog who refused to be tied to one owner but somehow became everyone’s dog. As dogs go he had some quirky habits and he wasn’t above stealing his dinner but he was affectionate and loyal to those he befriended and in return most everyone he met considered him a friend. People would take it in turn to de-flea him or take him to the vet for shots and he would sit by their sick children’s bedsides or guide caravan-dwellers to the toilet block at night.

This is such a simple story but de Bernières tells it beautifully, describing the landscape and the weather and using the local dialect just enough to give a real flavour of the time and place. The book is illustrated by Alan Baker with basic but effective line drawings in red and black and they add a fairy-tale quality to the experience.

The only negative, and I really hesitate to say it, is that de Bernières does over-explain some details. It adds to the condescension that at the back of the book there is a “Glossary of Australianisms” which I didn’t find at all necessary, seeing as the few words I didn’t know were made completely clear by context. But as I said above, if this is intended as a children’s book I can forgive all of that.

I really would recommend that everyone read this heartwarming book but doglovers beware, you will need to have tissues handy – it’s the life story of a dog, how do you think it’s going to end?

First published in Great Britain in 2001 by Secker & Warburg.

Art and community

This weekend Totterdown opened its doors for the Front Room Art Trail, an annual neighbourhood event that was one of the things that attracted us to this part of the city. Although people come from all over the city and beyond, I get the impression that most of those on the trail are local residents meeting their neighbours, seeing what an impressive range of artists live nearby.

The “front room” of the title comes from the fact that the majority of the art is displayed in people’s homes, with bright orange flags and wide open front doors indicating where to go (there are also maps freely available). Proprietors are ready with warm welcomes and friendly chatter to guide you around the art they have displayed.

In contrast to complaints I hear that these days no-one knows their neighbours, especially in cities, we have found Totterdown full of community feeling, with an endless rollcall of events, groups and meetings. The art trail is a fantastic addition to this mix. There’s something quite wonderful about walking into a stranger’s house to the warmth and smell of a wood fire, being handed a glass of mulled wine and encouraged to look out of their window to compare their view with your own!

Between the drizzling rain and my attempts to use a film camera rather than digital, I only have one decent photo from yesterday. This sculpture, built primarily by local schoolchildren, stands outside Fig. 1:

Light sculpture art community fun

I am already looking forward to next year’s event. Who knows, we may even open up our own front room!