Regional Reviews: Chicago
The play is based on a true story. In 2006, a man named Steven Gerald James Wright moved to the town of Ipswich in England. He lived there, on London Road, for only ten weeks. At the end of that time, he was arrested for the serial murders of five local prostitutes, earning the name "Suffolk Strangler" and going down as one of Britain's worst serial killers. London Road tells about the effect that Wright's actions had on his neighbors, ordinary people who just happened to live on a street that quickly became infamous.
The play is told through interviews with those residents. Blythe recorded their words, which we hear onstage verbatim in dialogues and bespoke songs featuring multiple overlapping and repeating lyrics. The effect is like watching a whirlwind made of song, as each segment returns again and again to featured lines set to complicated and syncopated music by Cork. This process of playwrighting, called "recorded delivery," is Blythe's gift to the theatrical world. Using it, nothing at all is edited out; that is, the normal stammering and repetition of spoken language become a part of the script, along with subverbals like "um." It feels a bit strange at first, especially when, in the second song ("London Road in Bloom"), one of those "ums" is sung as an independent line. (This, of course, happens throughout the show.)
The eleven cast members–Rengin Altay, Christina Gorman, Alani Gross-Roberts, Rebecca Jordan, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Steve Peebles, Linda Reiter, Steven Schaeffer, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Anne Sheridan Smith, and Kendal Wilson–who play a total of sixty-six characters among them, breathe honesty, emotion and life into these people and the words that they speak or sing. They morph into couples, into a social club, into reporters and camera operators and looky-loos attracted to London Road by the plethora of police vehicles that residents sarcastically say make their road "the safest street in England." They question how this could happen under their noses, why they didn't suspect anything and even whether it is at all reasonable to feel sorry for women who make their living as prostitutes: could they have, as one character argues, brought it onto themselves? (Smith, Jordan, and Muñoz Pandya later balance this ugliness with a scene told from the sex workers' point of view.)
Margolius clearly worked hard with these actors just to memorize this complex script, where a single tiny memory flub or paraphrase could potentially throw them all off the beat (which, remember, is often highly syncopated). More than that, though, they give each of their characters a life of their own. Some of them are recurring–mostly the residents, whose attitudes and personalities we start to recognize–and others come by only for a scene or two; still, every one of them is honestly realized in an impressively complicated group tour de force. Not only that, but the whole thing involves stylized music and precise blocking on a clever set by Jack Magaw that incorporates four separate "residences" in which live interviews are recorded, along with rooftops that provide some beautiful moments of blocking variety. (A scene in which Wilson appears atop one of them as a shop-window animatronic woman singing a Christmas song that overlaps the ongoing dialogue on the main floor is one of my favorites.)
Magaw's design also makes use of vivid projections, both still and moving, both pre-recorded and live. (The projections themselves were designed by Smooch Medina.) There is nothing about this play that feels easy, and Margolius adds original photos actually taken on London Road that are projected upside-down, as they might have appeared in a camera obscura. The director says in a program note that her decision to use this technique represents "the idea of the outside world deeply seeping into the homes and lives of the community and disrupting their peaceful neighborhood as well as challenging and exposing their core beliefs." Like the syncopated music and verbatim script, this inclusion serves to further agitate expectations and unsettle the audience, forcing them to become active participants in a disconcerting tale.
The unusual music is provided by a five-piece orchestra led by Andra Velis Simon and is intricately woven into the play, so much so that the sudden intrusion of a recognizable song ("Rocking All Over the World") near the end calls attention to itself. (Stephen Schaeffer has a well-deserved and spotlighted solo here.) The lighting design, another intricate aspect of the production, was done by Levi Wilkins. And I would bow my head in shame if I didn't mention Sammi Grant, who coached the cast on the tricky Suffolk County dialect: they are all perfect.
London Road is an experience unlike anything else you've ever seen onstage. Somehow, through the verbatim dialogue and the syncopated music, you end up feeling like one of the people in this neighborhood. It feels real and raw. And it also feels a little bit painful, as if you've been a part of the ripping off of a protective veil of illusion. These people, it is clear, have been permanently changed by Wright's intrusion into their lives. In an America in which mass murders are pretty much a regular occurrence (seventeen already this year, along with over 140 mass shootings), it is staggering to recognize the number of lives that are changed almost daily by violence. This play shows us that impact in an unusual, original format that I know will stay with me for a long time.
London Road runs through June 3, 2023, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.theaterwit.org.