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June 9, 2015
Based on the National Theatre production, London Road is as experimental on screen as it was on stage. The film has a great cast and is wonderfully directed by Rufus Norris but has some pretty big flaws in its translation to the big screen.
The story concerns serial killer Steve Wright who murdered five women working as prostitutes on London Road, Ipswich in 2006. However, unlike most films about this kind of subject, the story focuses on the residents of London Road, their reactions to the murders and their efforts to rebuild the community as well as the media circus that surrounds them. The script is based on primary source interviews with the real residents of London Road and uses their words exactly in the style of Verbatim Theatre. To add another unexpected layer, this is a musical. The songs not only have the exact wording of the interview subjects but also follow their exact speech patterns.
What on stage was incredibly exploratory, fresh and vibrant comes across as jarring and difficult on screen. This is not the fault of any of the creatives involved: from the writer, director and technical teams all the way to the cast, everyone did their best. Although commendably experimental, it just doesn’t work as a film. Where the use of echo-like repetition in the stage version was haunting, here it just feels jarring and affected. Where on stage the chorus nature of the piece makes sense, here it feels like the characters are not drawn with enough detail and seem distant.
Perhaps because in musicals and theatre in general we are usually dealing with a heightened reality whereas with film, unless it is heightened in some way (most masterfully like Danny Boyle did in Trainspotting), we tend to perceive it as reality. On stage, seeing verbatim theatre and watching a married couple talking like real people because the play is based on interviews is new and fresh, on screen we are used to seeing it every week on Channel 4’s Gogglebox except with actual real people having real conversations.
It is fascinating to watch from a performance point of view as it is quite a challenge and each actor approaches it in a slightly different way. The actors who get that balance just right are some of the ones you would least expect. It is a complex task; to keep the meaning in the song/words, the real rhythm of the people interviewed and repetition whilst still maintaining a real feeling in expressing the character. Some of the main performances are just misjudged. The characters don’t really come alive. They are all based on real people but the performances range from broader strokes in the case of Nick Holder to more naturalistic performances such as Paul Thornley. Neither approach seems to quite be right despite the best efforts of the cast. It does seem that what worked on stage, doesn’t quite deliver that same punch on screen across the whole running time.
The biggest casualty is Olivia Coleman who is definitely one of the finest actresses in film and television today but can’t find the sizzle to make it work. Anita Dobson, who is best known for her work as the iconic and troubled Angie Watts in Eastenders, steals the show. Her performance is natural and she finds real pathos in her character. On the other hand, one of the youngest cast members Eloise Laurence (who made a solid debut in Norris’ previous film Broken) also manages to judge it just right. Kate Fleetwood, one of the stars of the stage production and a very solid stage actress takes a smaller role here and it is a great shame. One of my favourite moments is hers. Near the end of the film, we finally get to hear the working girls of London Road react to the events. Her performance is soulful and her way of phrasing really works. She has real screen presence and I look forward to seeing more of her.
Rufus Norris’ direction is strong, he creates the world of London Road in great detail and his use of slow dissolve cuts and orchestration of multiple chorus characters in different scenes is very well done. He manages to take the action from the stage and out onto the streets well. The market scene at the start, the scene at the courthouse and the final street party scene are done masterfully. There are some moments that really work well. He just hasn’t been able to get the right screen performances for this film version.
The real herald of how this could have been from a performance point of view is Tom Hardy. He is an accomplished film actor and a genuine star who really proves his mettle here, unfortunately he is only in one scene with a few other brief appearances as part of the chorus. In that one scene though he manages to find the most complete way out of anyone in the film on how the material could have worked properly on film. He manages to respect the text without getting lost in the speech patterns and still keeps it very real. To be fair to the other actors, his part is small and not difficult but still, his short scene gives a taste of what could have been.
London Road is released in UK cinemas on June 12th