Musicals have taken on dark subjects in the past, but none in quite the same way as London Road, which premiered to great acclaim at London’s National Theatre in 2011. Writer Alecky Blythe spent three years interviewing residents of the town of Ipswich, where five prostitutes were murdered by a serial killer in 2006, and she and composer Adam Cork used verbatim excerpts from those interviews as the basis for the songs in London Road. The direct involvement of the real people (town residents, reporters, some prostitutes themselves) gives the production an almost documentary-like sense of verisimilitude, but the transformation of the interview transcripts into songs, complete with pauses and filler words, also creates a distancing effect, in some cases reducing the offhand remarks to nearly meaningless sounds via melodic repetition.
The film version of the play, directed by the National Theatre’s Rufus Norris, adds another level of realism with its actual locations (although not any in Ipswich itself), and expands the cast to give a sense of the diversity of the town residents. But it’s still very much a theatrical experience, with detailed choreography and intricate blocking in every scene, and musical numbers in which the distinctions between characters blur as they all sing variations on the same bits of dialogue. Even with a few brief opening title cards giving some context for the way the movie was constructed, it’s a bit jarring at first to watch these characters break into song, taking mundane phrases and making them into the refrains of big musical numbers.
But London Road is worth sticking with, and Blythe, Cork and Norris never use the unique structure to trivialize or mock what happened. Musicals are all about characters expressing their heightened emotions in a heightened fashion, and for years this neighborhood was full of nothing but heightened emotions. The movie begins as the killer is on the loose and continues through his arrest and conviction and the community rebuilding that follows, and the songs convey the difficult journey of the residents, coming to terms with the killer living among them and facing up to the problems they’d been turning a blind eye to.
London Road doesn’t follow a traditional narrative path, since all of the dialogue is taken from interviews given after the events unfolded, and it doesn’t really have traditional characters, although some of the specific real people in the community are represented (the killer, Steve Wright, is never seen, however). Words spoken by one interviewee are often spread among various actors, or repeated by multiple characters, especially as they rise into song. Most of the cast of the stage version appears, augmented by a handful of recognizable stars, including an excellent Olivia Colman as a community leader and Tom Hardy in a one-scene role as a cab driver with surprisingly extensive knowledge of serial killers.
Eventually the format becomes more comfortable, and the songs, despite their odd structure, end up as enjoyable and catchy as any effective musical theater, with an added level of melancholy and darkness. This is a story that could be told in many different ways (and has been, in both a dramatic miniseries and a documentary special in the U.K.), but the musical approach guarantees that its participants will be heard, that their voices will reach an audience that may even repeat their exact words, to a lively tune, hours or days later.