I watched this musical 24 hours ago, at the time of writing, and I still have mixed feelings about it. It has been adapted for the big screen following a successful stage run at the National Theatre in London, and I suppose the most obvious thing to say about it is that the upbeat musical score is heavily juxtaposed with the lyrics (and the subject matter more generally): London Road is about the 2006 serial murders of five women in the Ipswich area – all of whom had been working as prostitutes – by a man named Steven Wright. Except it isn’t. It’s actually more specifically about the effect the murders had on the local community, mainly the residents of London Road who were Wright’s neighbours at the time, but also (and in a much less-comprehensive fashion) other women who worked as prostitutes on the very same street. It begins before Wright’s arrest but after all five of the women have been murdered – we do not see them on screen – and the script and lyrics comprise lines taken directly from real interviews people gave to lyricist and writer Alecky Blythe at the time. All of the pauses and ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ that one might expect to hear in the original recordings are left in, and the songs are half-sung, half-spoken, with certain lines repeated by characters and choruses for effect. It certainly captures the feeling of a town and a community in shock; at first there’s suspicion and fear while the killer is still at large, then the neighbours struggle to deal with the ensuing media frenzy, and later on they are seen to be taking clear and direct steps to help each other move on, even holding a street party in an attempt to ‘reclaim’ their road. There’s a distinct sense of positivity that permeates as the narrative progresses, which I can only assume is something that Blythe picked up on while she carried out her interviews in 2006, as well as a clear message that good things can come out of pure evil. It’s actually quite an accurate representation of how a community in England functions, with lots of disparate and shared views mixed together, and the film’s quite astute in the way that it explores the psychology behind home ownership, especially the way that some characters feel the road has been tainted and want to move away, while others have the will to stay and make things better.
The film’s general release last year was greeted by a smattering of controversy, with some people making the valid point that a jaunty musical might not be the best or most sensitive way of dramatising these killings, and one does wonder what the friends and families of the women who were murdered made of London Road‘s existence as a piece of entertainment (whether you’re talking about a London-based musical playing in a theatre that attracts a particular demographic, or a film that largely played in arthouse cinemas, again primarily to a particular demographic). I also wonder whether the fact that the murdered women worked as prostitutes makes the existence of a stage or film dramatisation somehow more palatable for critics and anyone else who watches it; I can imagine much more outrage if an uplifting and slightly-comic musical was made about, say, a similarly-high profile UK murder involving a woman of a different age or with a different kind of background. Should London Road be championed as an act of artistic bravery? It’s certainly uncomfortable and unusual viewing material, and it directly forces the viewer to address how they feel about such a clash between form and content, so I can see why some have suggested it’s an interesting and/or important work. Yet it could just as easily be dismissed as a blatant act of sensationalism that has been designed to attract the attention of theatregoers and filmgoers within a competitive, crowded market. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, personally, but nevertheless I did like the fact it seemed original to me, and I also appreciated the fact that most of the original stage actors were re-cast (albeit with a few additions, such as Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy).
Directed by: Rufus Norris.
Written by: Alecky Blythe, Adam Cork. Based on London Road by Alecky Blythe, Adam Cork.
Starring: Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, Kate Fleetwood, Clare Burt, Janet Henfry, Paul Thornley, Jenny Galloway, Gillian Bevan, James Doherty, Tom Hardy, Nick Holder.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
Editing: John Wilson.
Music: Adam Cork.
Running Time: 90 minutes.