A musical about the murder of five prostitutes? Sounds in poor taste, but the National Theatre’s groundbreaking film London Road is – surprisingly – anything but.
Four years on from its sell-out South Bank run, director Rufus Norris (Broken and NT’s Everyman) has reunited his team (scriptwriter Alecky Blythe and musical director Adam Cork) for this hybrid feature film.
London Road documents the events that rocked Suffolk in 2006, when the quiet rural town of Ipswich was shattered by the discovery of the bodies of five women. The residents of London Road had struggled for years with frequent soliciting and kerb-crawling on their street.
Dubbed a ‘verbatim musical’, (meaning to quote word-for-word), the honest and often awkward interview dialogue of real residents of Ipswich are set to an innovative musical score. Ordinary meets extraordinary, as untalented sing-song accounts of the events surrounding the event tug the nasty narrative along.
In the slightly same vein as Les Miserables, Into The Woods, or maybe more accurately, Sweeney Todd, London Road morphs song with story into what is ultimately a witty, although mostly wretched, tale. The ensemble opening song ‘Everyone is Very Very Nervous’ sets the mood of uncertainty in the town, followed by the active imaginations of two teenage girls in ‘It Could Be Him’ as they ponder the possibility that any man in town could be the killer.
With anecdotes littered with “um’s”, “ah’s” and respecting every pause, every stutter and every colloquialism, the dialogue is unpredictable and engaging, authentic and at times, cringe-worthily honest. Some moments can make you uncomfortable (think “They were a complete pain in the neck. Y’know, they, they’re better off 10 feet under … That’s a horrible thing to say, isn’t it? But I’d love to shake his hand and say: ‘Thank you very much for getting rid of them”), but in other moments, you find yourself giggling.
As evidence builds up against the suspected serial killer, brief neighbour Steve Wright, the community focuses on coming together to restore the street’s reputation, and it’s done in the form of a garden competition – ‘London Road in Bloom’.
Broadchurch stand-out Olivia Colman leads an ensemble cast of mainly theatre and TV actors. The residents – quite unremarkable in their demeanour, attitude and presence – make fascinating character studies, and its obvious the cast were relishing the opportunity to play real (in every sense of the word) people.
Anita Dobson, Paul Thornley, James Doherty, Howard Ward, Paul Hilton and Duncan Wisbey round out the main the residents of London Road, predominately couples thrown together by the need to clean up the streets and bring happiness and security back to the neighbourhood.
There are stellar performances from Rosalie Craig, Hal Fowley and Michael Shaeffer playing pushy journalists. Shaeffer is particularly wonderful in his solo song/scene ‘Cellular Material’, where he has difficulty substituting the word “semen” with a more appropriate term for his live news broadcast.
A quick cameo from current British It-boy Tom Hardy is solid (although why he has to be on the poster I don’t know) and theatre favourite Kate Fleetwood lends her addict-perfect cheekbones to the role of a kind-hearted lady of the night.
Wright, the man convicted of killing the five sex workers, doesn’t get a face or a voice in the film, which given the material is based on true events, is fair. It would be disrespectful to the families of the victims, and even the audience, to have Wright speak, sing or contribute to narrative, and although a part of you is frustrated at not seeing him even briefly, his absence is deliberately poignant.
Musical numbers like ‘And That’s When it All Started’, ‘It’s a Wicked Bloody World’ and ‘We’ve All Stopped’ are the most stirring, following the events from the arrest to the realisation that women aren’t safe on the streets.
Not quite a film, or a musical, or theatre, London Road is a mesmerising blend of all three. It tackles issues of drug addiction, prostitution, violence, privacy and reputation, but most shockingly, it’s enjoyable. Every scene, every word and every song. Something good comes from something bad, and in the case of the Ipswich murders, finally, people’s voices have been heard. Loud and clear and fantastically out-of-tune!
London Road is out now exclusive to Cinema Nova, Palace Brighton Bay and Palace Cinema Como.