"The show treads the line between musical and straight theatre rather closely"ELISE LIMON

“Christ, this is so complicated. How many takes did we say we were going to do on this one?” exclaims Robin Franklin, frustratedly stumbling over the words to a number entitled ‘Cellular Material’ just as I had so stumbled into rehearsal. Perhaps I’d be forgiven for concluding that this outburst was an inevitable malady of the rehearsal process. But it is, in fact, entirely scripted.

The use of verbatim theatre is distinctive in this way for its exactness, for its retaining of each and every one of the ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ of everyday speech. London Road is essentially performative journalism: it documents exactly the interviews and experiences of Ipswich residents as the police and media flock to their front doors amid the conviction of Steve Wright, finding themselves at the very ‘epicentre of tragedy’. The score enacts the anarchic staccato rhythms of spontaneous speech, drawing out the melody of every ruptured sentence.

Rehearsals are a "case of hard graft and learning by rote"ELISE LIMON

The experimental use of verbatim in this way evokes an emotional intensity: a sense of ‘heightened naturalism’, as musical director, Joe Beighton, puts it, and the cast have been rehearsing methodically. It is a case of hard graft and learning by rote, using headsets in order to replicate and repeat precisely the intonation and vocal nuances of speech as recorded in interviews. The results are ‘terrifyingly accurate’, he tells me. ‘Everything you see is real.’

London Road is essentially performative journalism”

Beighton is right, and this unerring accuracy to the particularities of speech and pitch tug at the heart strings – it certainly makes something of the ritual of story-telling. The show treads the line between musical and straight theatre rather closely, and the songs are a mutating mosaic in which overlapping lines and metronomic choruses hit emotional chords that bring a complexity to the narrative that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.

Beighton tells me that as the trial is approaching its 10-year anniversary, the decision to put on this show is particularly pertinent. To this end, director, Ellie Coote, confesses that she feels a particular responsibility to remind the cast ‘to treat the piece with the respect it deserves, and to treat the people whose voices they’re imitating with respect, too – they’re not just characters, they’re real people.’

"The songs are a mutating mosaic"ELISE LIMON

And the respect for the piece is palpable. Coote adds that London Road has ‘attracted a group of people that really felt that they’d get something out of it – they’re so committed and dedicated in a way that I haven’t seen before.’ I ask her whether such an unwavering devotion to the accuracy of things is inhibitive in any way when it comes to musical theatre, but she tells me that it is liberating. ‘It’s such an experimentation in the way of doing things, not necessarily the most definitive, but there’s a real sense of merging of two forms that are quite opposite and seeing where it takes you. But verbatim is actually so suited to musical theatre. Those small vocal nuances really do lend themselves to performance. Some of the numbers even sound like they started off as song.’

She remarks that she’s even found herself listening to people speak in cafes, picking out the prosody of every day speech and envisioning it in song-form. ‘It completely takes over the way you listen to everybody around you.’

The cast aren't simply playing characters, but borrowing the real words of real peopleELISE LIMON

But it is a strange form nevertheless, and a big departure from standard ADC musicals. Beighton admits that it perhaps may even come as ‘a bit of a shock’ to viewers: ‘When I went to see it at the National [Theatre], I was in that boat. But I was blown away by it, I was just left wondering how on earth they’d managed to memorise it. It’s incredibly hard to learn, but eventually it makes so much sense. In one respect, it is out there and it is avant-garde, but when it comes down to it, it’s actually just about normal people and with characters that you’ll warm to. I really think people will like it.’

As I walk back into the rehearsal room, Franklin is still labouring over the same song he had been practising when I had first arrived. Coote is directing him: ‘You can play it up a bit in this one, Robin. But play it up in the context of this show!’

“this innovative and fragmentary musical promises to sustain an authentic and ‘hard-hitting’ poetic intensity long after it ends”

London Road is a show that is constantly ‘playing down’ the more ephemeral and exaggerative aspects of its performance. Conventional musicals, even at their best, take us into a world of fantasy where suspension of belief is a pre-requisite, but this innovative and fragmentary musical promises to sustain an authentic and ‘hard-hitting’ poetic intensity long after it ends.

London Road runs at the ADC Theatre, Tues 7th – Sat 11th February at 7:45pm