In Ipswich near the end of 2006, there occurred a shocking series of murders, with five prostitutes the victims, all of whom had been picked up around the London Road area which had become a blackspot for prostitution, much to the middle class residents’ dismay. That these crimes had happened was a culmination of exactly how bad the situation had grown, and the locals reacted with a mixture of suspicion, resignation and anger, especially when the media moved in as it made their homes look like a breeding ground for the worst of humanity – and some would include the drug-addicted prostitutes in that assessment. As the police investigation continued, the questions continued to be asked, the big one being, could our neighbour be a serial killer?
London Road began life as a series of interviews with those locals who had lived through the media blitz and felt their lives suffer as a result of Steve Wright, the actual killer, and his crimes, if only by the unpleasant association. Writer Alecky Blythe then teamed up with composer Adam Cork who set her interviews to music, which was then adapted into a stage musical by expert theatre director Rufus Norris, and when that was a success, making it into a film seemed like the logical step. However, as you can imagine this was never going to be for everybody, and the mere motion of creating a musical out of such harrowing events was to many minds deeply offensive, even to those who actually liked musicals.
On watching it, however, you could find yourself thinking about the events in a different way, not so much the murders which everyone would agree (so you’d hope) were abhorrent, but on the general reaction to them, be that by the man or woman in the street or the media who descended upon the place. Proving that the musical genre was not the sole preserve of showtunes, when the cast break into song, it’s arranged as part of their speech patterns, complete with pauses, “ums” and “ahs” and verbal crutches to keep the dialogue going precisely as the original interviewees had spoken, only the melody was close to the pattern and tone of everyday speech, but more tuneful to create songs of a sort. It was strangely compelling.
However, such was the novelty of hearing these so-called “verbatim” songs that you did find yourself concentrating more on the way things were sung rather than what information was imparted and as a consequence you may miss much of what the point of Blythe’s highlighting of these specific passages would be. What was most striking was that this was no murder mystery, indeed the identity of the killer barely seemed to matter and he didn’t feature in person, or with an actor playing him, whatsoever, again it was all very reactive: how would you feel if someone in your community, someone you may not even have met, turned out to be committing dreadful crimes, how does that reflect on you that you would allow this?
Of course, you’re not allowing this, it was the perpetrator who was the culprit and their fault entirely, but when we hear the animosity from the London Road residents towards the prostitutes it makes you ponder if they cared more about saving face when the world’s attention was focused on them rather than the victims whose lives had been so utterly hopeless. When the prostitutes get their song to sing, it’s as if they’re from a different planet such are their concerns, and there’s little indication their quality of life will improve any time soon as the residents in contrast used the infamy and shame to revitalise their neighbourhood with community spirit-led garden contests and quiz nights. You could observe that at least some good came of the atrocity, but the film also acknowledges a serious loss of innocence once the society has been through a stage of looking at every man and worrying he may be a multiple murderer, something this obliquely applies to the whole of Britain. Incidentally, don’t watch this expecting lots of Tom Hardy singing, he’s only in one and a half scenes and appears to have been added for publicity reasons.