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London Road turns a community’s response to murder into a brilliant musical

Britain’s National Theatre delivers a screen version of its acclaimed show drawn from real-life interviews.

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Late in 2006, a truck driver named Steve Wright was arrested in Ipswich, a river town in Suffolk, England, for the murders of five prostitutes who had offered themselves to men along the town's London Road, near a newly built sports stadium. The usual media circus ensued, sullying the town's reputation, before Wright was convicted on all counts in February 2008 and sentenced to life in prison. In the weeks leading up to his trial and afterward, experimental playwright Alecky Blythe interviewed the killer's immediate neighbors, the reporters covering the case, and even a few sex workers, returning to London with more than 100 hours of recordings. She might easily have turned this material into a radio documentary, but instead, collaborating with composer Adam Cork and director Rufus Norris of Britain's National Theatre, Blythe turned it into a stage musical, London Road, which premiered in 2011 to great acclaim and has since been adapted to the screen.

On paper London Road sounds like Springtime for Hitler—how could a series of such recent and ugly crimes be set to music and produce anything but distaste? Yet onscreen London Road is a commanding, at times hypnotic experience. Every word spoken or sung is drawn verbatim from Blythe's interview transcriptions, and Cork has structured his quirky melodies around the rhythms of people's speech, preserving every pause and interjection. The austere classical music, stirring when even a single character is singing, is positively arresting when the characters join together in a Greek chorus, a single person's remark becoming a catchphrase and then a common sentiment. These choral sequences feed into Blythe's story of a community learning to speak for itself again, though in the end the neighborhood defines itself partly through the people it rejects.

The first ten minutes alone show how masterfully the filmmakers have merged reporting and musical theater. A montage sequence links all the neighbors, the camera panning around each of their living rooms as they watch news reports on TV. Tense strings accompany the broadcasters, and as they recount the chilling details of the unsolved case, their professional cadences rise into melody. The neighbors begin to comment in spoken dialogue, sharing unpleasant memories of how the streetwalkers ruined their block. "I've got a 14-year-old girl!" exclaims Julie (Olivia Colman). "I don't want girls, um, doing what they did in the streets. And they weren't just getting in people's cars. They were doing it in the alleyways and everything else." Gordon (Duncan Wisbey) has nothing but vitriol for the women: "They were foulmouthed slags really, stab you as quick as anything else, wouldn't they." Sitting on their couches and speaking to the camera, the neighbors seem pinched and provincial, workaday people defending their modest middle-class lives.

Even as these pitiless sentiments are being expressed, Norris cuts to the streets of Ipswich, where Julie, walking to the local Christmas market, introduces a descending, minor-key melody that will spread from person to person: "Everyone is very, very nervous / Um / And very unsure of everything." In the market square a spinning Santa Claus statue croons "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and a local radio station is handing out plastic handheld sirens as a promotional gimmick. Sung remarks from other townspeople snake in and out of the main theme: "I think it's, um, put Ipswich on the map for the wrong reasons, unfortunately," sings one merchant. Shoppers take sidelong glances at each other, wondering if the killer might be walking among them, and fall into choreographed lines. As the number builds to a climax, Julie's words unite the shoppers, who chant the word very over and over again before dropping to their knees on nervous.

After Steven Wright is apprehended, Norris develops this powerful use of chorus into something even more complex, showing how the neighbors resent the media intrusion but also hang on coverage of the case. Julie, Gordon, and Gordon's wife react coldly when they emerge from their homes en route to a community meeting and find TV newsman Simon Newton (Michael Shaeffer) preparing to tape a report outside Wright's house (the front window has been boarded up, and kids have drawn a little demon cartoon on the wood plank). Over a spooky dub beat, Newton struggles to recite his lines, stumbling again and again on a long sentence involving DNA science and semen (a word he isn't allowed to use on the air until ten o'clock). Meanwhile, at the community center, the neighbors agree that Wright is the culprit but fear he'll go free for lack of any physical evidence. Suddenly Newton's report comes on TV; they all gather to hear him deliver his piece perfectly, then repeat it in chorus.

Blythe grew to sympathize with her subjects during the course of her research, and despite the grim subject matter, London Road ends on an upbeat note after Julie and her graying, rotund neighbor Ron (Nick Holder) call a meeting to help the neighborhood get back on its feet. Spring is coming, and they decide to have a block party with a gardening contest for best flower basket. Later in the movie Norris shows them all coming outside to clean up their yards and plant new flowers and greenery. This time Julie introduces a major-key melody, giving a tour of her fenced-in yard and showing off her flowers; the other neighbors chime in with inventories of theirs. They paint the road's drab cement walls with cheery colors. In the final sequence everyone gets together for the block party, a long line of tables with white plastic tablecloths running up the street. Neighbors dance to Gordon's three-piece rock band, and London Road is bathed in sunlight.

But not everyone is welcome. Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), one of the hookers vilified by the neighbors in the opening sequence, threads her way uneasily through the party, trailing a balloon behind her and collecting salacious glances from the guys in Gordon's band before finally retreating to a scaffolding some distance away. Blythe never individualizes the streetwalkers as vividly as she does the neighbors, but in the movie's last third these women begin to emerge from the shadows—in one scene Vicky and two other women huddle on the scaffolding above the community center and harmonize about their dreams of getting clean. Now that the crisis is over, some of the neighbors express more sympathy for the victims, but some are shockingly cold. "I feel sorry for the families, but not them," says Julia. "They're better off ten foot under." The community has bounced back, but only by driving the less fortunate a little farther up the road.  v

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