London Road (2015) is a film starring Olivia Colman about a real life serial killing. And it’s a musical.
In 2006, the residential street of London Road in Ipswich, England, down which prostitutes propositioned passing cars, was flooded with police after no less than five bodies were found in just ten days. Playwright Alecky Blythe was elsewhere getting fodder for her new show about sex workers by collecting real stories from real people. When she heard prostitutes were being murdered in Ipswich, she went to check it out. Upon interviewing the London Road residents, she discovered that she did not have a story to incorporate into her new play, but she did see potential for a brand new play. However, on her fifth day in Ipswich, the killer was caught, shelving the story for a while.
When the killer was up for trial, it opened the door for Act II of Blythe’s story. She interviewed more people, including six sex workers in rehab. Between her interviews and what was aired on the news, she had enough real life dialogue to make a story. You see, Alecky Blythe specializes in “recorded delivery.” She writes plays with no dialogue other than the verbatim speech that was actually said by the real people involved. This includes matching every “um,” and “uh,” as well as the pauses and inflection. Nerds will appreciate that Blythe’s style of writing is inspired by a workshop called “Drama Without Paper,” taught by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s Mark Wing-Davey, which required students to conduct interviews and write dramas based on them. They then used earpieces on stage so that actors could repeat the recorded delivery verbatim just a beat behind the voice in their ear. In a post-screening Q&A at the New York City film premier of London Road last week, Alecky Blythe recalled that although the actors’ musical training helped in memorizing the speech patterns (as London Road was the first of her recorded delivery shows she did without an earpiece), even the Phantom and Les Mis stars struggled sometimes with this new technique: “They all had moments of, sort of…going into the lou and crying.”
Working with Adam Cork, Blythe changed much of the dialogue in London Road into song. She decided not to tell the locals she’d interviewed that their tragedy was being turned into a musical until she was about a year into creating the project.
But don’t expect some snappy Broadway pop jingle. The musical is very respectful to the people who suffered this tragedy in 2006, and it emphasizes the realness and localness of the people. With the exception of a cameo from Tom Hardy as a cabbie, which doesn’t seem to serve much purpose in the film other than star power, the people look and talk like real people, not like actors or West End stars, even though that’s what they are. Eleven actors played fifty-five roles in the National Theatre stage play of London Road in 2011. The locals whose quotes were used to make the songs attended a performance. Afterward, they met the cast. Having had the voices of these people in their ears for ages, the actors were more starstruck by meeting their characters’ real life counterparts than the locals were at meeting West End stars. That’s not to say that the locals weren’t supportive of the film. During the Q&A, Alecky Blythe said that the locals were both “brilliant” and “moved.” When the stage play was translated to film a couple years later, even though the movie was not filmed in Ipswich, the locals got to play extras in the final shot at the London Road in Bloom party. If you look closely, you can actually recognize some of them based on the spot-on portrayal by their actorly counterparts. Blythe says that Julie, Olivia Colman’s real life counterpart, is one of the project’s biggest fans, despite that Blythe was concerned about the way in which Julie is portrayed in the film. Julie is the mother of a teenage daughter, and because of the prostitutes at the end of the road, she has needles in the yard and people having sex in open view on her block. While she feels sorry for the families of the victims, she’s glad that the murders resulted in getting the road cleaned up. Blythe checked in with Julie eighteen months later to make sure she was still comfortable with her statement about wanting to shake the killer’s hand for making her street safe for her family, because it is an important view that needs to be expressed in the film, and Julie stood by her statement, which is lucky because Blythe stated that if Julie had requested to take it out of the script, she would have taken it out of the script. This shows the dedication and respect that the creators have shown toward the real London Roaders, and they’ve received much support for the project in return. Not to mention the stage play raised more than forty grand for the rehab center that the sex workers were attending upon the cleaning up of London Road.
Unfortunately, the London Road in Bloom holiday that celebrates the cleaning up of the road every year has broken its succession this year, the first year they have not held it since that first one that you see on screen. The London Roaders seem well and truly ready to move on. But maybe that’s a good thing. They don’t need to be haunted by the crime for generations to come.
The combination of verbatim-style writing, superb acting, and respectful portrayals makes London Road an exceptional film. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. But take a chance on it. It will be good for you.
Jaime Pond is the editor of Anglonerd.com. She lives and works in NYC. Follow her on Twitter.