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London Road centers voices of survivors

British imports are common enough on Chicago’s stages. The plays of Simon Stephens regularly appear at storefront theaters; Court Theatre will revive Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead next season; and Six continues its Broadway reign following its 2019 North American premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. But it’s safe to say that Chicago audiences have never seen a British show quite like London Road, which makes its U.S. debut at Shattered Globe Theatre this month. 

After opening to critical acclaim at London’s National Theatre in 2011, London Road was adapted into a 2015 film with an ensemble cast that included Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy. Based on the true story of the 2006 serial murders of five sex workers in Ipswich, England, the musical comprises verbatim interviews that playwright Alecky Blythe conducted with members of the community, set to music by Adam Cork. In other words, it represents a subgenre of a subgenre: the verbatim musical.

London Road
4/22-6/3: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Wed 4/26 8 PM, Thu 4/27 7:30 PM, no shows Fri 4/28 and 5/19; touch tour and audio description Fri 5/5 (touch tour 6:45 PM); Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, sgtheatre.org, previews 4/22-4/26 $25 ($10 students), regular run $52-$45 ($25 under 30)

The modern genre of documentary theater—which draws from primary source materials, typically in unaltered form—originated about a century ago in the USSR and continental Europe before migrating to the UK and U.S. The subgenre of verbatim theater specifically employs interviews with the play’s subjects, as in The Laramie Project, a 2000 play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the aftermath of the homophobic hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. 

In 2019, Chicago audiences saw a memorable example of verbatim theater in the Goodman’s Dana H., a haunting account of the kidnapping of playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother. When the one-woman show later premiered on Broadway, actress Deirdre O’Connell won a Tony Award for her performance, which was entirely lip-synched to the actual interview recordings. 

But a verbatim musical? That’s a rare breed. “I’d been familiar with verbatim plays, but never the idea of a verbatim musical,” says Elizabeth Margolius, director of Shattered Globe’s London Road. When she initially watched the film version, “the music itself was just so different from anything I’d ever heard before, so that was one of the first things that I found fascinating.”

Music director Andra Velis Simon was similarly “mesmerized” by the score. “It’s incredibly complicated and moving and exciting and terrifying all at the same time. And so, I thought, ‘Oh, shoot, now I have to do this.’”

At Shattered Globe, an ensemble of 11 actors plays dozens of characters, including residents of London Road—the site of the murders—and several surviving sex workers. Cast member Tina Muñoz Pandya, who plays neighborhood watch committee member Jan (among others), explains the unique experience of portraying real people in this verbatim format.

“As an actor, you’re often playing a character that’s been crafted to be a certain way or to tell a certain part of the story or to serve a certain function in a story,” Pandya says. “Just to be playing a real human person and speaking literally in their exact voice—it’s such a challenge as an actor, but it’s also really freeing as an actor . . . The humanness is right there.” 

Since each cast member plays multiple characters, sometimes they have to switch roles from one line or lyric to the next. The original recordings of the interviews are a constant point of reference as they rehearse. “Even though we don’t have photos of these people, we have their voices, and our actors have been amazing at using that to inform their physical choices,” says Simon. 

Another challenge is the music. In Simon’s view, a good piece of musical theater has seamless transitions between spoken text and music, “because the song feels like speech.” London Road represents this in the extreme, she explains. “This is all literally speech that [Cork] then notated as music, but without making any changes to it. Everything that is sung in this musical is something that someone said in that way.”

Verbal tics, repetitions, and “likes” and “ums” are all translated into the score, which features complex patterns and layers that critics have compared to composers ranging from J.S. Bach to Steve Reich. “Every single hesitation is there in an eighth-note rest, and it sounds like they’ve matched almost the exact pitches,” says Margolius. “It’s unreal.”

Previous vocal habits go out the window with this score, Pandya explains. “I’m trying to figure out how to get the cadence and the quality of their voices across via song. I have often been self-conscious about how limited I feel my voice is, and so to have the freedom to stretch it in this way and the freedom to know that if it cracks or if I mess up or if it’s not pretty all the time, that’s how people talk, and that’s how many of these people are talking.”

The show’s plot centers on the London Road residents who see their quiet street undergo several transformations: first, into a favorite locale for sex workers to pick up clients, and next, into a crime scene and media circus as the murder investigations ramp up. The overall message is one of resilience as the community comes together to heal in the aftermath. 

Of course, the residents aren’t the only ones affected by the serial killer’s crimes. The surviving sex workers are the most at risk, and they stop taking on new clients while the investigation is ongoing. Three of them are featured in the show, but they don’t get their own song until midway through the second act, reflecting their marginalized status in the community. 

Additionally, the writers don’t shy away from exploring the complicated views of the London Road residents toward the sex workers, which range from empathetic to shockingly harsh. “I think this piece did a really good job of honoring these women and also being very honest about how the community reacted to them at the same time, which wasn’t very nice a lot of the time,” says Margolius. 

While casting the ensemble’s various roles, Margolius and Simon decided to have actors who play the characters that say the worst things about the sex workers double as these women, sometimes in back-to-back scenes. “I think there are rightfully going to be many people who are very uncomfortable with the way these women are talked about,” says Simon. “I know that we all are. So, it’s a way to try to turn that on its head a little bit.”

Ultimately, the show encourages audiences to think about what it means to be part of a community and how one’s actions and language affect others. “I think it is so appropriate for the moment we are in, globally,” says Pandya. “You see the effect that a community coming together has, and you see the effect that community care has on a micro level, but you also see what happens when people are left out of that or when people are actively pushed away.

“Community care should apply to everybody, not just the people within your immediate community,” she concludes. “The bounds of community don’t stop at your street.”

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