Film Review: London Road

An oral-history project about the community collateral damage that hit a quiet block in an English town after a sensational series of murders becomes a sharp-elbowed, guerrilla-theatre documentary musical.
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Some viewers of London Road are going to relate to Mark, the cabbie character that Tom Hardy plays for all of one song in Rufus Norris’s chilly film adaptation of his 2011 National Theatre “verbatim musical.” In between regaling his passenger in a thin but passable voice with a song thick with an FBI profiler-thick stack of details about the attributes of the serial killer who has recently murdered five local women, he cuts back to remind her that he’s not a serial killer, he’s just interested. Devotees of true crime interested in Mark’s preferred masses of carefully compiled evidence, red herrings, and shadowy speculations by all sorts of tangential characters are likely to be disappointed. As will fans of about 95 percent of musicals onstage these days.

London Road is a challenging work, but not as much as its advance press would have you believe. The makers of the stage show spent three years interviewing the residents of London Road in Ipswich, England, about the effects of the so-called Ipswich Ripper on their community. Those transcripts were then used as lyrics for a broad sociological sweep of a musical, opened up from the stage version in occasionally awkward but generally rewarding fashion.

The story is broadly chronological, from the murders up through the arrest of a suspect on London Road, and through the effects of the media tsunami that followed. As in most musicals, the interstitial dialogue is the primary plot mover, while the musical numbers explore the characters’ inner feelings. Unlike most musicals, there is little buildup to each number; each tends to just begin, with only a little grudging choreography here and there.

Early on, we hear a batch of London Road residents talking as though to a news reporter who just entered their living rooms, which range from fussily spic-and-span to barely lived-in. They’re upset by the prostitutes who have been gathering where their block of modest two-story homes dead-ends in a wall overlooked by skeletal water towers that loom over the street like massive tombstones. That resentment (“a complete nightmare,” “foul-mouthed slags”) pivots to fear and anxiety once the murders begin.

The songs are a mutating mosaic in which overlapping lines and metronomic choruses hit frequently twinned emotional chords that bring a complexity that the sometimes tinny and clanging music cannot. This can create a compellingly realistic result, like the mixed fear and excitement of the teenage girls scanning all the men they see in “It Could Be Him,” or simply repetitive, as in the one-note “Cellular Material.”

As a chronicler of a mood and time, London Road is mostly effective in relaying the dismay of the residents at the invasively tabloid crime and media circus and also their cautious spirit of hard-fought optimism that closes things out. However, Norris’ fractured approach to framing rarely allows his characters to interact, turning what could have been a great ensemble piece into more of a series of miniature solo numbers. This also keeps most of the characters from being able to stand out as individuals from the mass.

What keeps London Road from coming off like some overly earnest WPA project about what “the people” really think are a few factors. Norris’s cool-handed modernism keeps things off-base and tricky throughout. An effectively Brechtian moment in “And That’s When It All Started” shows the block strung with so much crime scene tape that it tangles and traps an old woman just trying to get home with groceries. The cast’s matter-of-fact manner of not so much breaking as falling into song is heavy with pained wistfulness.

Almost the most devastating moment in this admittedly daring work, though, is not one of form but of intent. Following a spectacular moment near the end where a prostitute drifts ghost-like through a block party, Julie (Olivia Colman, of “Broadchurch”), who has become something of nurturing organizer for the street, brings things back to Earth with a reminder that not everyone on the street isn't exactly brimming with sadness over the girls that were killed. They just wanted their street back.

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