In 2006, the bodies of five prostitutes were found in the rural English town of Ipswich. Tight-knit neighbors on London Road were in a tizzy; some heartbroken about the women’s deaths, all panicked that there was a murderer among them. When a man on their street was arrested, residents stayed glued to their televisions for news about the trial and tried to regroup as a friendly neighborhood. London Road tells their story.
And it’s a musical.
What may sound like the worst idea since Pete Best pissed off The Beatles originated on the National Theatre stage in 2011, directed by the same helmer of the film, Rufus Norris. (Book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe; music and lyrics by Adam Cork.) And although it didn’t inspire audience hysterics, it did garner critical acclaim.
The cinematic version of London Road, in turn, isn’t quite the tone-deaf atrocity it promises to be. The film’s opening text informs you that residents and prostitutes were interviewed over three years and that what follows is what they said, “exactly how they said it.” Well, not exactly—one imagines that no one broke out into song during the exchanges (especially not news anchors).
Though Tom Hardy and Olivia Colman have roles (the former an unfortunately tiny one), this is an ensemble piece in which very few characters get names. Instead, these are anonymous neighbors in their homes—or hookers milling about outdoors—commenting about the murders and how they changed the atmosphere of the community. Set pieces also take place at markets and on the street as the residents cautiously go about their days as if nothing happened.
These people don’t always sing, and no one ever really belts out a number. The musical’s makers were fairly clever in the way they handled the interview copy; the melodies are lighthanded (sometimes only a notch above talking) and lyrics are overlapped and repeated. The result, along with some minimal choreography, is a syncopated, visually arresting history. And, indeed, not even the stammers were edited out: “Everyone is very, very nervous. Um. And unsure of everything. Basically” goes one line. Another has two identically dressed girls singing, “I’m just going to, like, cry,” with a nervous teen laugh punctuating the statement.
Much of it is remarkably catchy, and not all doom and gloom as you might expect. There’s even dry humor: At the beginning, a camera is trained on a rotund older man, who stares gape-mouthed at the unseen interviewer for a bit before prompting, “OK. Ask away!” Another resident comments, “Police say what you should and shouldn’t do. But they never said, ‘Don’t be a prostitute and don’t get into strangers’ cars.’” (No melodies are assigned to these lines.)
As the latter reflection suggests, some neighbors aren’t all that bothered by the crimes, complaining that the “foul-mouthed slags” had already ruined their community when they first showed up. Colman’s Julie even fantasizes that she might shake the killer’s hand if given the opportunity, for eliminating the seediness that her teenagers had been exposed to.
London Road does slow to a crawl at times, and occasionally it’s hard to get past its inherent weirdness. But when the characters’ movements are dancelike—in one scene, police tape is laced across the street like streamers—and their songs rhythmic, you may just be mesmerized, with choruses such as “You automatically think it could be him!” worming their way into your ear as stubbornly as any Fab Four hit.
London Road opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.