After five people (including a nine-year-old child) were murdered in a mass shooting in Texas last week, Governor Greg Abbott tweeted, “I’ve announced a $50K reward for info on the criminal who killed five illegal immigrants Friday.”
As it turns out, not all of the victims were undocumented. But that’s not the point: Abbott knew precisely what he was doing by tying their deaths in with his ongoing pursuit of xenophobia and racism as a political weapon. If you can sow doubts about the humanity of victims (perhaps through the knee-jerk rush to amplify “no angel” narratives about anyone killed by police who ever had any run-ins, no matter how minor, with law enforcement), then somehow that makes it all a little easier to bear. If their lives don’t matter, then their deaths don’t, either.
But on a personal level, it’s easy to understand why people who might themselves live in fear of violence find reasons to distance themselves from victims. When I lived alone in Wicker Park 30 years ago, the body of a young woman who had been battered and strangled was found in a trunk in an alley not far from my apartment. Was there a serial killer on the loose in my neighborhood? I worked a lot of late nights in retail back then and was constantly on the lookout on my walk home from the el.
I’m not proud of this, but I will admit that when media reports quoted law enforcement officials speculating that the murder was related to “gang activity,” I breathed a sigh of relief. (And then I wondered precisely how they made that judgment—and why a person’s life was reduced to who she may or may not have been on friendly terms with.)
Through 6/11: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, sgtheatre.org, $45-$52 ($35-$42 seniors, $25 under 30, $15 students)
Both those incidents have been flying around in my mind since seeing Shattered Globe Theatre’s transcendent and hypnotic U.S. premiere production of London Road late last week. Based on the real story of the serial murders of five sex workers in Ipswich, England, in 2006, this 2011 “verbatim musical” (book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe, music and lyrics by Adam Cork) interweaves interviews with dozens of residents of the eponymous street in Ipswich where the women worked and where they met their death. (Steve Wright, a trucker who had recently moved to the area, was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for life for the murders.)
And yes, at one point, one of the people interviewed says of the killer, “We hoped it was an immigrant.”
The show follows the community from the shock and fear of the initial days (the murders all happened between late October and early December 2006, at the height of the Christmas shopping season), through the media frenzy of the manhunt, trial, and sentencing, to the aftermath, when the people around London Road decided to (awkwardly) reconnect as a community through neighborly gardening competitions and game nights at the community center.
Every line and lyric comes from the people interviewed by Blythe, but the 11 cast members all play multiple characters (there are 66 in all), switching sometimes within a line or two from one role to another. In its sung-through form, it’s more of an opera than a conventional musical, and not just because the lyrics aren’t concerned with tidy rhymes. (Indeed, the pauses and interstitial “ums” and “ahs” from the people interviewed add verisimilitude and create their own odd rhythms).
In fact, despite the desire of the people in the community to beautify and move on with their lives after Wright’s conviction, the great strength of the show is that it resists tidy-bow endings or insights. In one of the most chilling sections in the second act, the music drops out entirely after the sentencing, and a man says of Wright, “I’d like to shake his hand and say thank you very much for getting rid of them.”
Other characters wrestle with their contradictory feelings about the sex workers—sympathy for women at risk on the street and disgust for how they make their living. (Though finding out that serial killers sometimes move on from “working” women to “regular” women seems to put fear into them and undercut their assumptions that maybe they’ll be safe.) All the neighbors resist media descriptions of London Road as a “red-light district,” though it’s clear that women were indeed working the street and nearby thoroughfares that led to a sports stadium in the town.
Directed with precision and empathy by Elizabeth Margolius and with a tight, resonant five-piece band under the nimble direction of Andra Velis Simon (the score is heavy on keyboards and reeds), London Road unfolds in the middle of the audience, seated on all sides. At each corner of Jack Magaw’s spare but effective set are four structures that look like bay windows and are covered with blinds. These also serve as rooms where live-feed interviews originate with various characters, projected on the walls of the playing area, while we see their silhouettes behind the blinds. At times, characters climb ladders to the top of the structures to offer their opinions or to sing.
The divide between private and public, what is seen and unseen (or at least unacknowledged) by the community members literally comes into focus in these interview segments. Projections of images of London Road and surrounding areas, photographed originally by associate director Daren Leonard and Margolius, are presented upside down in Smooch Medina’s design—a pretty on-the-nose visualization of the dislocation felt by the residents during and after the murders. (In a program note, Margolius likens the choice to the images created by a camera obscura, or literally a “dark chamber.”)
The residents of London Road seem most disturbed that the women might have been killed indoors in Wright’s home. Is it because that fact upends the notion that home is a sanctuary? Does it make the killings seem more intimate and up-close than the idea of the women being dragged to a field somewhere far away? Does it make them question their own awareness of their neighbors if horrible crimes can be happening right next door? All of these possibilities are presented in the scrum of understandable fear and confusion.
The only archival images we see of people are of the five women Wright killed: Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls, and Paula Clennell. The oldest was 29, and the youngest was 19. Two were mothers, with one of them in the early stages of another pregnancy. And though of course we cannot hear their voices, in the second act, we finally do hear stories of the sex workers who shared London Road with them and how the murders changed them. Tina Muñoz Pandya, Rebecca Jordan, and Anne Sheridan Smith deliver achingly understated performances as the women interviewed. (A BBC report in January 2022 noted that sex work in Ipswich had been halved since the murders.) The voices of the actual women interviewed return in an audio track by the end of the show as reminders that they are also (still) members of the community, no matter how reviled they may be by some.
I do wish we heard more of the stories of the women who worked on London Road for the sake of narrative balance, but I think perhaps that’s a conscious and ultimately effective choice on Blythe and Cork’s part. Why, after all, do we need to hear them voice their traumas in order to believe that they matter? Why is it their job, on top of everything else they face, to “humanize” themselves? (It’s rather like thinking that a murder victim having a green card somehow makes their death more important than if they’re undocumented.)
The show’s not entirely a heavy-duty affair, despite the subject matter. Blythe and Cork do a masterful job of moving from mundane everyday life to moments of revelation about how the murders have shaken up the assumptions Ipswich residents had about their town. Christmas carols blend with speculations from shoppers about who it could be—and who can be trusted. A scene in a pub where an amateur student of serial crime finds himself joshingly accused of maybe being the killer is both mordantly funny and unsettling. Longtime Shattered Globe ensemble member Linda Reiter plays an increasingly frustrated television reporter who just can’t work her mouth around the lines about the DNA evidence submitted in court against Wright in a song entitled “Cellular Material.”
There are also moments of true sweetness and camaraderie among the residents as they try to move on. Early on, during a garden competition committee meeting, one of the organizers says, “We’ve got to get this street tarted up,” only to add sheepishly, “That’s not the right choice of words.”
London Road asks us to listen and observe closely, and the actors (not a weak link in the bunch) not only sing the deceptively difficult score with ease but also embody the shifting characters with subtle details and empathy. This U.S. premiere is a triumph for Shattered Globe, but it’s also a show that feels like it needs to be seen. The story is British, but the circumstances and the reactions of the community feel both very universal and very specific to our own frog-boiling-in-the-water times in the U.S. Ultimately, it asks us to consider why it’s so easy to view some people as more disposable and less worthy of love, concern, and grief at their passing than others.