“Everybody’s very very nervous”
The theatrical production of London Road was a major success for the National Theatre, the opening run first extending in the Cottesloe and then being rewarded with a later transfer to the much larger Olivier – I was first blownaway by its originality and then later comforted by its message in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. So the news that director Rufus Norris was making a film adaptation was received with apprehensive anticipation, could this strikingly experimental piece of theatre possibly work on screen.
Writer Alecky Blythe uses a technique whereby she records interviews with people which are then edited into a play but spoken verbatim by the actors, complete with all the ums and aahs and repetitions of natural speech. And in 2006, she went to Ipswich to interview a community rocked by a series of murders, of five women in total, all sex workers, and set about telling a story not of salacious deaths but of a community learning to cleave together in trying times. Oh, and it’s all set to the most innovative of musical scores by Adam Cork, elevating ordinary speech into something quite extraordinary.
The material has been considerably reshaped for the screen – Moira Buffini assisting as script consultant – resulting in a much more straight-forward narrative through-line than was seen on stage. This linear development is reflected in Danny Cohen’s cinematography which tracks the wintry gloom of the beginning into the verdant bloom of the climax with a real visual grace. Straightening out the storytelling reduces the theatricality of the presentation too, making this feel much more like a piece of documentary realism.
Where the stage show had a cast of eleven each playing a resident and multiple other roles, each character is played by someone different here, meaning the focus is teased out a little from the tight circle of the London Road residents and their outrage about their street turning into a red light district, to give a more fully realised sense of the wider community. They consequently get more of their own voice heard – the nervy teenagers suspecting everyone around them, the sex workers shaken up by the attacks on their own, the journalists tiptoeing around the sensitivity of the issue whilst always on the lookout for a scoop.
The experience of the residents does remain central to the film though, Blythe digging back into her archive of interviews to find ways of ensuring at least of them appears in every scene and Cork rejigging the score where necessary too. And this is where the writing is at its strongest, in always showing the complexity of the collective response. Though the story moves towards a happy(ish) ending with the London Road in Bloom street party as the culmination of their efforts, there’s no pretence that a solution to the inherent problems has been found, they’ve just been moved away from their doorstep.
This ambiguity comes across particularly well in characters like Olivia Colman’s Julie and Nick Holder’s Ron, barely apologetic in their unspeakable thoughts yet rooted in small-town authenticity. Paul Thornley’s inscrutable Dodge, Linzi Hateley’s pragmatic Helen and Clare Burt’s dithering Sue remain a delight, Anita Dobson is daffily wonderful as June, Michael Shaeffer and Rosalie Craig’s journalists both stand out and the original Julie, Kate Fleetwood, plays the new role of Vicky, a haunting figure representing the spirit and presence of the working girls, both alive and dead.
And delving a little deeper, clever little touches abound in the production. The two schoolgirls singing ‘It Could Be Him’ (see clip below) are the daughters of Burt (Eloise Laurence) and Hateley (Meg Hateley Suddaby); Blythe and Cork both get cameos as a newsreader and a pianist respectively; and the final street party mixes real residents of both the real London Road in Ipswich and the fictional one in Bexley in with an ensemble that folds in any number of faces that seasoned theatregoers might recognise.
Elements of choreography by Javier De Frutos are used sparingly but most effectively to sprinkle pathos or humour into sequences as required, David Shrubsole’s sharp musical direction keeps the singing (nearly all done live) on point, and Norris’ direction constantly takes on inventive new directions to expertly but sensitively reshape the material for this new medium. I can’t imagine what it would be like to come to this film without prior experience of the show (and I’d be fascinated to hear from you if that’s you) but as a fan, it is undoubtedly a beautiful extension to one of the most innovative musical theatre experiences of the last decade.
Full cast list