LONDON ROAD brilliantly uses the unreality of ordinary people breaking into song to evoke the unreality of a serial killer on the loose on the otherwise unremarkable eponymous street in the otherwise unremarkable small town of Ipswich, England. Based on the Royal National Theatre production, original cast intact, that was, in turn, based on the transcripts of newscasts and interviews with the residents of that street, it takes those words and turns them into startling, sometimes unsettling, revelations about groupthink, the desperation of tedium, and the unconscious yet universal coping mechanisms and rituals that evil produces, things like xenophobia, paranoia, and an odd sense of community. Alecky Blythe (book and lyrics and cameo as a BBC newsreader) and Adam Cork (music and lyrics) discover in the pat phrases and unselfconscious confessions a syncopation, which in turn leads naturally into music and lyrics without changing a syllable.
There is, as we are informed at the start of the film, not a word invented in the entire film.
The inhabitants of the road, led by Olivia Coleman in a complex and fearless performance, are working class, law-abiding, and, to varying degrees, hostile to the prostitutes that have invaded their turf. Even when five of them turn up dead, the attitude is harsh, seeing them, ironically, in the same subhuman way that the killer does. As the hunt for the killer progresses, teenage girls (Eloise Laurence and Meg Suddaby) chatter about being both scared and exhilarated by the fact that anyone they pass on the street could be the killer and their words, the repeated phrases, gradually become song. The same is true of a cab driver (Tom Hardy), whose monologue about his theories of the case and his own fascination with serial killers takes melodic flight as his passenger (Ivy Henfrey) becomes increasingly agitated, gradually turning her own own inner monologue of fear and insecurity into verse. Passersby in a crowd, or a legion of televisions turned to the latest news become choruses bespeaking the zeitgeist with call-and-response tropes.
As events progress, and a suspect is arrested, extremes are explored as inhabitants become tangled in a surfeit of literal police tape while attempting to go about their lives, a cuddly newscaster (Jason Barnett) with nothing to say, but a million ways to say it, is jostled by the crowd outside the town’s police station, and hausfraus turn into veritable Madame Defarge’s screaming for blood as their comments heat up in vitriol and indignation.
Tellingly, we are never shown the killer, only the reactions he causes. Smart move. This is less about the specifics of one crime than it is human nature itself. From self-deluding righteousness of upstanding citizens, to a bitter, heartbreaking ensemble of surviving prostitutes (led by an arresting Kate Fleetwood) pondering their state since the murders. There is no glamor underscoring the artifice. The descant of Christmas carols take on an aspect of impotence with their canned cheer, and the brave flowerpots of petunias that are used to bring life back to London Road are the stuff of both courage and pathos.
LONDON ROAD is on a par with such contemporary classics as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. It is what art does best, consider the human condition with the clarity of a bracing new perspective, and finding truths therein that could not be discovered in any other fashion.