It’s difficult not to look at London Road and think that it ought to have been a disaster. For a start, a musical about a fairly recent serial killer case sounds tacky and a little bit tasteless. Likewise, having a musical where all the lyrics are taken from real-life interviews, using the original genuine speech-patterns, sounds like the sort of thing that might be nice as an artistic exercise, but not anything that could create good songs that people would be interested in hearing.
However, when London Road reached the National Theatre stage in London, critics had to eat their words and admit it was really good. Whether it would survive a jump to film was another matter, as while it worked within the inherent theatrical artifice of the stage, bringing it out into the ‘real world’ is something rather different.
The script is based on interviews conducted with the residents of London Road and others whose lives were affected by a series of murders of prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006. It’s essentially in three acts, with the first third set before the killer was caught, looking at the effect of the murders on the residents of the area where the girls are disappearing from. It then moves into the limbo after the police charge London Road resident Steven Wright with the killings. Many had hoped that knowing who did it would bring closure, but they discover it doesn’t bring the comfort they’d hoped, as the media circus and uncertainty continue.
The film then moves on to the perhaps unexpected effects of the murders, such as the residents pulling together and creating a residents’ association in the hope of improving the area, as well as the help that was suddenly offered to Ipswich’s remaining prostitutes to get them off the streets and off drugs.
London Road mixes recreated interviews with re-enactments of certain events. Notably though, it never shows the victims (except metaphorically) or the killer, instead focussing on the wider effects of the case, from the media hullabaloo to the suspicions of the people of Ipswich knowing that there is a killer amongst them.
It’s all done extremely well, as irrespective of the musical aspect it works as a dramatised documentary, including revealing the conflicted attitudes of the residents, from those who were secretly rather glad the killer got rid of the troublesome prostitutes, to the rather ghoulish excitement it caused some teenagers and journalists).
That alone would be worthwhile, but then you have the fact the whole thing keeps breaking into song. When it first happens, with people singing words in a way that sounds exactly like speech (which is what it originally was), the whole idea seems bizarre and the sort of ridiculous thing nobody should have ever attempted. However, it soon starts to grow on you and reveals itself to be rather clever, making extensive use of repeated phrasing and layering words together to create songs that are oddly catchy and also effective at bringing you into the aspects of the situation the film is trying to highlight. It also allows the film to have a surprising sense of humour, which never feels cheap but might have been difficult to bring out in a different way.
It’s undoubtedly odd, but it’s also rather fascinating and a surprisingly entertaining and human way to look at some pretty dark issues, managing to bring together the real and the intrinsically artificial to create something new and a little different, which feels grounded and yet utterly fantastical at the same time. I’m not sure whether it really creates anything profound, but it’s undoubtedly massively more successful than it has any right to be. And just in case you were wondering how close to the real words it is, right at the end there are clips from the original interviews, revealing that it’s pretty much exactly the same, bringing out the rhythm and melody of what was already there.
One thing I wasn’t sure about was the brief cameo from Tom Hardy, who was apparently a fan of the stage show and so wanted to be part of the movie. He plays a cabbie who has a fascination with serial killers, who has a song (done more through rhythmic speaking than traditional singing) about his theories about the killer, which understandably unnerves his passenger. It’s a worthwhile song, but suddenly having Hardy show up is a bit odd, as it’s not the sort of film that really benefits from a bit of star power.
Overall Verdict: I know that for some people it won’t matter what I say, as a musical based on interviews about a series of murders sound too strange to be something they’d want to see. However, it is worth getting over you preconceptions, as it not only works as a musical, but also successfully manages to give insight into the wider effects of notorious crimes.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac