Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Rufus Norris
Stars: Olivia Colman, Kate Fleetwood, Paul Thornley, Anita Dobson, Tom Hardy, Eloise Laurence, Phillip Howard, Jenny Galloway, Paul Hilton.
Britain’s National Theatre has established a reputation for their impressive staging of some of the finest works of notable playwrights as well as some more quirky theatre pieces. And in recent years they have taken these plays to the world via the cinema screening through a series of National Theatre Live screenings, which captured a live performance on film and beamed it into cinemas around the world. Thus audiences have been treated to some outstanding evenings of theatre including the fantastic and hilarious One Man, Two Governors, and the Danny Boyle directed Frankenstein, which saw Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller play different roles on alternate nights. But now the National Theatre has branched out into film, translating another successful production to the screen.
The first example of this bold new venture is London Road, which played two sold out seasons. With a script by Alecky Blythe and music by Tony Award winning composer Adam Cork, London Road is a musical drama based around the true life case of Steve Wright, a serial killer who murdered five prostitutes on London Road in the quiet village of Ipswich in 2006 and was dubbed “the Suffolk Strangler”. The brutal murders shattered the calm of this peaceful little village and generated an atmosphere of dread and suspicion. Rather than focusing on the murders or the killer, London Road deals with a community facing tragedy, how the residents react to the horror around them, and how it finds a way to heal itself in the aftermath.
Writer Blythe spent a couple of years interviewing the residents of London Road and several prostitutes and police officers about their experiences of that time, and she has incorporated their actual words into the dialogue here. She has also included some court transcripts from the trial, as well as reports from the hordes of journalist who descended on the sleepy town to cover the sensational murders. What the residents have to say is sometimes surprising, as many do not have any sympathy for the victims. However, it loses impact because much of the dialogue is delivered in that peculiar form of speaking/singing that is the one of the hallmarks of the works of Stephen Sondheim. And it is an approach that is somewhat offputting; as the performers begin to sing their dialogue it comes across as artificial and mannered and tonally unbalanced.
Clearly what may have worked on the stage doesn’t work when opened up for the screen. This is not a musical in the traditional sense. The lyrics are bland and deliberately repetitive, and there is also the lack of a memorable tune that will have people humming along as they exit the theatre.
The director is Rufus Norris, a respected theatre director who previously gave us the bleak and confronting drama Broken. Norris directed the original stage production in 2011 and so is familiar with the material. But here he seems unable to inject the same material with much energy. This is dreary and leadenly paced. The setting itself is also somewhat depressing, as much of the street lies in the oppressive shadows of a gasometer tower. Cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, etc) uses drab colours to accentuate the oppressive and downbeat nature of the setting.
Most of the cast has been drawn from the original stage production, and they lend voice to the fears, suspicions and stories of the residents of the street. But the characterisations are rather slim, and it is hard for audiences to either identify with them or empathise with them. The producers have also brought in Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, etc) in roles specially created for the film to attract cinema audiences. Colman plays a single mother who has little time for the dead prostitutes. Normally an actor with a strong physical presence, Hardy is wasted here in a small and thankless role as a taxi driver with an interest in serial killers; even worse though he cannot carry a tune.
There have only been a few successful musicals about nasty killers before – think of Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd – but unfortunately London Road just doesn’t work. The thought of treating such serious and disturbing subject matter as a musical is also a little confronting. London Road is not the type of film that will have broad appeal outside a limited art house release.