If there has been a more British film since Pride, it wasn’t memorable enough to be referred to. Where Pride found humour in the miners’ strike, being gay in the eighties and being slightly ignorant in Wales, London Road finds ripples of risibility in the murky waters of prostitution, murder and intense media scrutiny on Ipswich.
There is literally a catalogue of context behind this unusual project. It was borne of a National Theatre collaboration between screenwriter Alecky Blythe and lyricist Adam Cork back in 2007. This is both a musical and a big screen translation of verbatim theatre which tells the story of the residents of London Road in Ipswich in the aftermath of a series of murders in the area during 2006 – a mouthful which highlights the ambition of the venture.
It isn’t just funny in order to neutralise what would otherwise be awkward subject matter, the fun arises from the ordinary foibles that people have, accentuated by repeating poignant phrasing and those ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ that we all try to iron out ordinarily. This effect is married to the uplifting human tendency to find the good in adverse or even tragic situations – showcased by the ‘London Road in Bloom’ community event which concludes the story.
Blythe uses the recorded interviews she made with the people of London Road, and with the help of Cork and Rufus Norris, turned them into a play with two sell-out runs. It is now a moving, humorous and warm film. There is a credit that rolls at the beginning of the film stating that this is the people of London Road’s story – exactly as they told it. Without knowledge of the original NT performances, this might appear trite at first, but as the unusual techniques of verbatim theatre grow on you, it only serves to lend a layer of authentic power to what unfolds and how it unfolds itself..
It is not a ‘normal’ screen musical. The combination of verbatim and music create a wonderful celebration of the patterns of human speech. In the case of the four-strong chorus of TV news journalists, it accentuates the series of hackneyed, rehashed expressions that the press use to report murders, court cases and on-location features. The songs are seamlessly woven into the narrative, often a song has begun, before the musical score breaks in. The spoken-word singing is an extension of the scripted dialogue. It doesn’t appear as a barrier or block to the flow of storytelling.
If you saw The Last Five Years, which adapted a perfectly good stage musical into a two-hour, sing-a-lurch of a film without much consideration of its new medium, London Road does the exact opposite. Firstly, it is cut down to 90 minutes – making it punchy and concise, not afraid to back the concept to the hilt – which is a reduction of about half an hour from the stage version. Scenes were cut or changed that were designed for a theatrical audience and new, “filmic” ones created where necessary. Even if this was to Blythe’s chagrin and meant “killing a lot of babies”. (In our interview it was clear that she had a strong sense of maternal protection over her source material).
This brings us to Tom Hardy’s somewhat perplexing top-billing when he only appears for one scene and one frame. His character’s inclusion is actually a vital part of the adaptation process, especially for Blythe. Back in 2006 in Ipswich, Alecky recorded some dynamite material in a pub that was much easier to put in the play than the film. The ‘real-life Tom Hardy’ was an apparent fount of knowledge on the psychology of a serial killer, the reasons he might have became such a person and why he targeted prostitutes. This was of course, amateur conjecture. Tom Hardy embodies this ‘expert’ in the film. In the guise of a taxi driver, he could assume the one-way diatribe from the recording, without it seeming forced, or breaking the fourth wall. As a cabby with blackened teeth we also find a person relating such views as suspicious – suspicion playing a large part in the lives’ of the London Roadites. Whether justified or not, it exposes our prejudices. He insists he knows all about murderers, but that doesn’t make him one. Hardy slots in without a hitch. However, it seems a shame that the superb original ensemble cast has to be relegated under what is, effectively a new character, just because he is a big name.
At the centre of the story are the marginalised prostitutes working in Ipswich during and after these murders. As a result of the real events they encouraged each other to wean themselves off drugs and move away from prostitution. The local community aided them in doing so. As the film reaches its climax, the prostitutes have their own song of defiance which is accompanied by the powerful image of a young girl in London Road giving her balloon to ‘Vicky’ (Kate Fleetwood) which is subsequently releases into the atmosphere. As the end credits roll, an edited recording plays out. It is cropped and timed to exactly mimic the song that preceded it. The tape startlingly unveils the verbatim process, demonstrates the power of film to tell real people’s stories in their own way and brings home the reality of the events that you have just seen fictionalised.
Alecky Blythe, Adam Cork and Rufus Norris reunite here to transform London Road for a cinema audience. The care they have taken certainly pays off. It is funny because it is intensely empathetic, and not exploitative. It details a whole range of reactions, from crassness to caring and always from the people who experienced it. Whether you know of or have seen the National Theatre production is blissfully irrelevant. It’s a remarkable story, remarkably told.
Read our interviews with Alecky Blythe and Anita Dobson here.