When I hear that something deadly serious has been turned into a stage musical, the first thing that springs to mind is Elephant! the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway show based on the life of “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick, within the comedy film The Tall Guy. Or, of course, Springtime for Hitler.
So when I heard that London Road, a film adaptation of a National Theatre musical production, is about a 2006 serial-murder case, my first reaction was: Hell no. The potential for getting this wrong is enormous: the probability of tonal imbalance between hammy dramatics and horrible crime is almost 100 percent.
But London Road isn’t that sort of musical. This is not Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s not like any sort of musical I’ve ever seen before — no one has. It’s the first verbatim musical, a twist on the documentary format of verbatim theater, in which transcripts of interviews or other factual documents (such as courtroom transcripts) are performed onstage by actors in order to present the truths of the real people and the real events they are portraying. (Plays such as The Laramie Project and My Name Is Rachel Corrie are examples of verbatim theater.) For London Road, which first appeared onstage in London in 2011, writer Alecky Blythe crafted lyrics (for composer Alan Cork) from the actual words of the people living on the titular street in the town of Ipswich, England, as they react to the news that five prostitutes who had been working in their neighborhood had been murdered, and later that one of the street’s own residents has been arrested for the crime.
The story here isn’t about the murders; they’ve already happened as the play and now the movie opens. It’s not about the victims or the killer… so this isn’t something that is going to grant him any fame or infamy (which is always a concern with a film about contemporary real-life crime). We never even see him, and his motives and modus operandi are not brought up at all; he is not a character. London Road is, as the title hints, all about the community surrounding the murders, and how it reacts to horror and tragedy literally on its doorstep.
And this is where the genius of London Road is to be found, in underscoring how, because events like these killings are not too far out of the ordinary, the way that we react as a society is so predictable that it could be scripted. How our public institutions — the media, the police — react follows a playbook. There isn’t quite dancing here… but director Rufus Norris choreographs a band of police officers spreading crime-scene tape around a quiet city street in a dancelike way: there is ritual preparedness and deliberateness in their actions, as of course there would be in such police activity. The Greek chorus of TV news reports isn’t quite singing, but there’s a familiar rhythm in the same stock phrases we hear all the time, somehow simultaneously reassuring and terrible.
No one belts out Broadway-style showstoppers, which is the sort of thing I was worried would happen. Instead, the cast — including the entire ensemble from the stage production with a few big names brought in for the movie — speak the words of real people, with all the um’s and ah’s and hesitations of their actual recorded speech, in time to music that is just a little bit discordant, keeping an uneasy beat that is a darkly thrilling replica of scared community spirit. London Road resident Julie (the always marvelous Olivia Colman: Cuban Fury, Locke) is disgusted by the prostitutes, finds it hard to sympathize with them, expresses concern for her teenage daughter being exposed to that sort of thing. Two schoolgirls (Eloise Laurence, who was so astonishing in Norris’s first film, 2012’s wonderful girl’s coming-of-age story Broken; and Meg Suddaby), wend their way around town, into cafes and onto buses, marveling and worrying about how there’s a killer among them. (Their song, “It Could Be Him,” might be the best one, capturing adolescent anxiety in all its skittish giggling.) A taxi driver (Tom Hardy: Mad Max: Fury Road, Child 44; but don’t get too excited, he’s in only two scenes) engages in the usual sort of taxi-driver chatter with a passenger, offering his own profile of the likely killer based on his extensive reading in criminal psychology… and then hastening to add, because he realizes what he sounds like, that he’s definitely not the killer. One ensemble number, “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous,” is a grimly beautiful study of the unplanned but inevitable coordination that arises when absolutely everybody in town is worried about the same thing, is thinking and talking about the same thing, is changing their daily routines because of the same thing.
Perhaps there has never been a more striking example of the notion that all the world’s a stage, and we’re all playing our parts, than London Road, by making us look anew at familiar scenes — angry citizens outside a police station; neighbors coming together after something bad happens — as scenes, as sequences we’re almost programmed to perform. Why that might be is open to interpretation: perhaps it means we’re all more alike than different, united in basic goodness and revulsion of wrongdoing; perhaps it means we don’t think too deeply about much of anything we do or say but instead instinctively act in tandem with our fellows.
This is what the best film (and theater) does: It asks us to question fundamentals of ourselves and our culture and our universe that we have perhaps taken for granted. That’s rarely an easy or comfortable thing, so London Road is not an easy or comfortable film. But it is a hugely provocative and rewarding one.