As a piece of theatre, London Road was extraordinary. Initially created as a response to a wave of prostitute murders that gripped Ipswich with a vice-like sense of panic a decade ago, Alecky Blythe’s drama blossomed with the input of original songs by Adam Cork. Together, the two put together a ground-breaking musical that, while respecting the boundaries of realism, exceeded its original intent, becoming not a story of fear and isolation but a big-hearted study of mankind’s ability to learn and recover from tragedy.
National Theatre director Rufus Norris was the guiding hand behind both the original stage play and this new big-screen adaptation. On the stage, he kept things intimate and tight, with a dozen actors each playing six or seven roles. London Road the movie finds Norris working on a much bigger canvas, and, astonishingly, it still works. Utilising a palette of steely blues and concrete greys, the scene is set for the winter of 2006, when nondescript serial killer Steve Wright began his brief reign of terror.
Wright doesn’t figure much in Blythe’s story, and neither should he. London Road is about the effect his crimes had on a small part of the city, a place that somehow had fallen into neglect and disrepair. But this is not a story of urban poverty; London Road is a snapshot of modern Britain, where its citizens prefer to be together but alone, rather than alone together. And so the neighbours watch, helpless, as their street becomes a red-light area, where a stream of kerb-crawlers maintains the spiral of exploitation that keeps young girls on the streets and on hard drugs. The police are powerless. The council doesn’t care. What to do?
The answer comes from within the community itself, in a show of people power that inspires the locals to take charge of their surroundings. But the charm and power of Norris’s film is that it isn’t simply a redemption tale. Sticking firmly to Blythe’s “verbatim” drama style – the characters on screen each say the exact words that their real-life counterparts once said, right down to every pause, “erm” and malapropism – London Road portrays a kind of anti-drama that reflects the humanity of the situation. Aside from the street-party finale, nothing is flowery here; in fact, some of the sentiments expressed by the locals are quite shocking – not everyone shares its creators’ sympathy for the working girls.
Trading up a little from the stage version, London Road benefits from some well-known names who slot almost unobtrusively into the excellent ensemble cast from the stage production. First and foremost is Olivia Colman as Julie, the woman who unites the neighbours and stirs up a militant civic pride in a community torn apart not only by Wright and his crimes but also a rubber-necking media that won’t leave them alone. And in the film’s only concession to commercialism, Mad Max’s Tom Hardy appears as a paranoid taxi driver, a counterpoint to Julie and the physical embodiment of a place where, just as every woman is a potential victim, every man is a suspect.
But does it work? The answer is, overwhelmingly, yes. Not all the songs land, but when they do, the effect is spine-chilling. Like table magic, it is simple but breathtaking, and though its artistry is considerable right across the board, what we take away is not the film’s technical prowess but a powerful story of ordinary people who no longer wish to live with darkness.
London Road is released in cinemas on Friday 12 June