London Road: The Ephemerality of the Spoken Word

The film London Road was recently released in British cinemas. The film is based on a National Theatre stage production, which in turn is based on interviews with residents of London Road, Ipswich. London Road became infamous in late 2006 when five prostitutes were found murdered in the Ipswich area. The police arrested a resident of the road, Steve Wright, who has since been convicted of the murders. In the aftermath of the arrest, writer Alecky Blythe visited London Road and interviewed a number of the residents. She used these recordings to create a musical, which uses verbatim transcripts of the residents’ words. The production first ran in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe studio, and was later transferred to the bigger Olivier stage in 2012.[1] And now, in 2015, it has been turned into a film.

The biggest selling point of the production is this exact use of the resident’s words. All the ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and all the grammatical errors are preserved. However, using the exact words also means that the musical preserves comments from residents that would otherwise have been long forgotten. The spoken word, in conversation, is normally extremely ephemeral. Humans do not usually have the capacity to remember things that have been said to them, word for word. The consequence is that when things are said, they are said to be forgotten: ‘a throwaway comment’ is called that for a reason.

By recording the interviews and then composing the text of the musical around them, Blythe gave them a different, more permanent quality. This was only preserved up to a certain point in the stage production, which of course again is a fleeting medium. But now that the words have been committed to (digital) film, they are seemingly recorded forever (or at least until technology moves on so much that we are no longer able to use current file formats).

What are the implications, ethical or otherwise, of making something that is ephemeral, permanent? When the London Road residents were interviewed, they knew they were assisting in the creation of a stage production, and they knew that their words would be recorded. They did not know, at the time, that eventually these words would find their way into a feature film. They were perhaps also not aware that their words would not be used plainly, but that they would be layered, repeated, and spoken by multiple characters, in order to create the rhythm and flow of the musical piece. Would they have said different things, if they had known all this? Would they have said different things if they had just been speaking to a neighbour, without a microphone in front of them?

When London Road claims to be using the residents’ exact words, this does not mean that it is reflecting the residents’ actual thoughts. The words have been mediated several times over in order to arrive at the current text. London Road explores something very interesting with its use of the spoken word: not the supposed realism of using verbatim texts, but what happens when speech is reworked and recycled.

[1] See Ben Lawrence, Alecky Blythe: ‘I revere the way people speak’, Telegraph website, 28 July 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-features/9433269/Alecky-Blythe-I-revere-the-way-people-speak.html Accessed 24 June 2015

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