Director – Rufus Norris, Screenplay – Alecky Blythe, Based on the Musical by Alecky Blythe & Adam Cork, Producer – Dixie Lander, Photography – Danny Cohen, Music/Lyrics – Adam Cork, Visual Effects – Lipsync Post (Supervisor – Leo Newlands), Production Design – Katrina Lindsay, Choreography – Javier du Frutos. Production Company – BBC Films/BFI/Cuba Films/National Theatre
Olivia Colman (Julie), Paul Thornley (Dodge), Anita Dobson (June), James Doherty (Seb), Kate Fleetwood (Vicky), Tom Hardy (Mark), Jenny Galloway (Margaret), Nick Holder (Ron), Mark Sheals (Wayne), Janet Henfry (Ivy), Eloise Laurence (Schoolgirl #1), Meg Suddaby (Schoolgirl #2)
In 2006, the residents of London Road in Ipswich are rocked by a series of killings of the prostitutes that frequent the end of the street. Fear and speculation run rife through the community before the police arrest Steven Wright, a forklift driver who had been renting a flat on London Road. As the trial gets underway, the community tries to deal with the aftermath and turn the tragedy around in a more positive direction.
London Road is a film based on the true-life serial killer Steven Wright who operated in the town of Ipswich in Suffolk in the UK. Wright was a former truck driver, merchant seaman and publican who was working as a forklift driver at the time of the murders. Between October and December of 2006, Wright picked up various of the prostitutes that used to frequent the London Road area, strangled them to death and then dumped their bodies in different locations around the town. Wright was eventually arrested and charged with the murder of five prostitutes. His defence was that he had employed the services of the women but did not kill them. He was convicted as guilty in 2008 and given a ‘whole life tariff’, the British equivalent of life without parole.
London Road (2011) was a play based on these events that was commissioned by the National Theatre. The play was written by the rising name of Alecky Blythe. Blythe conducted over 100 hours of interviews with the residents of the real London Road and then came back and wrote them into a script. The really off-the-wall choice was to then convert the interviews into musical form – something that Blythe calls ‘verbatim theatre’. The play was directed by Rufus Norris, the National Theatre’s artistic director. Rufus Norris also directs the film version, which retains many of the actors from the stage version. There are only one or two new actors, most notably the moderately well known Olivia Colman, former Eastenders (1984– ) star Anita Dobson and the internationally high profile Tom Hardy who turns up in only a couple of scenes as a weird taxi driver obsessed with serial killers.
The film takes you aback with what it is doing. First, there is the idea of a true-crime story – the rather grim subject of a serial killer whose activities are still in recent memory – conducted as a musical, which is usually a genre that deals in sunny larger-than-life emotions. The only other films that you can think of that come near to this would be Alferd Packer: The Musical (1996) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), but Alferd Packer was deliberately absurdist whereas London Road is realist, while Sweeney Todd was set in Tim Burton land and is based on a folk tale that has no known basis in fact so cannot be considered proper true crime. The film starts in in a very naturalistic style with a series of mocked interviews with the actors playing the locals but then abruptly – at first subtly and in a very ordinary manner – we realise that the television newsreaders are all singing their lines and in a chorus. The other notable oddity is that the film has kept in all the speech disfluencies – thus when the actors are singing they are keeping in all the parts that usually get edited out of the dialogue in a film, the “sort ofs”, “ums”, “you knows” and “yeah wells” and so on. It is decidedly disconcerting to see in a musical but oddly fascinating.
The other thing that should be noted is that London Road is not a depiction of the serial killings – indeed, Steven Wright is not even portrayed in the film – but rather it is about the local community and their reaction to the events. This places it into the company of films such as The Boston Strangler (1968) and Summer of Sam (1999), which examine the killings from a sociological perspective rather than act as an examination of the mind-state and biographical details of the killer or else conduct a blow-by-blow recount of the police investigation. Thus the film is less true crime than the cross-section of a community’s reaction. This leads to a more banal depiction than you would get in many other true crime films – we get songs going on about gardening, even one with a news reporter constantly flubbing his lines because he is not able to say the word semen on tv during primetime. There is however one particularly plaintive sequence with the prostitutes singing about the effect that the killings had on their lives and how it helped clean up their drug habits.
The film reaches a far more upbeat ending than you would expect for a film about a series of serial killings but you have to constantly remind yourself it is about the way the community reacts and so makes logical sense. There are however a couple of minor moments that touch on a dark undertow beneath the rosy upbeat climactic celebration of the street’s flower festival. One of these is a scene where Olivia Colman as the lead community organiser is interviewed and says out of the blue how she wish she could have shaken Steven Wright’s hand and thanked him for cleaning the street up of the prostitutes, which makes the whole audience gasp and you suddenly realise that beneath the community bonhomie there is quite a degree of intolerance. The other is a scene where the camera pulls back up from the street festival to show one of the prostitutes standing on the abandoned gasworks scaffolding where you are drawn to her isolation from the community revival before a lovely moment where a young girl below looks up and they share a smile.