The techniques of verbatim theater go back decades, to at least the 1950s, when young German theater troupes would re-enact complicated court cases word for word onstage. Even earlier, in the United States, the WPA paid for a form of this performance with its Living Newspapers, in which theater artists conducted extensive journalistic research about a social problem and then dramatized their findings. But no matter what the topic of a verbatim piece, it’s almost guaranteed the documentary will have an activist bent.
In the States, plays have cropped up around devastating events, such as Matthew Shepard’s murder and the Sandy Hook massacre, with playwrights circulating in the communities for months — sometimes years — to record interviews with normal people whom the news vans might have overlooked. The effects of these plays in performance are often more impactful than a reporter simply writing a story. Playwright Alecky Blythe’s daring and endearing London Road — first a stage play and now a feature film, both directed by Rufus Norris — tackles a small English town (London Road) rocked by a serial killer. And it’s also a musical.
Anyone whose eyes roll back in their heads at the word “musical” will be remiss if they don’t give this film a proper chance. This odd take on a police procedural true-crime story is the polar opposite of a cheesy Cop Rock (ask your parents). Blythe’s goal in teaming up with musician/lyricist Adam Cork was to make a musical that didn’t make her cringe. Cork weaves the casual cadences and conversational patterns of interview subjects into experimental — at times infectiously poppy — syncopated compositions. Every actor’s “er” or “um” in the lyrics hits a highly specific, differentiated note, while the chorus singers dance minimally through shopping malls and streets, wondering aloud through song whether the guy in the coffee shop is the murderer terrorizing local prostitutes.
Blythe’s handling of the prostitutes’ stories and how the town views them seems the most poignant message of the film, but she doesn’t editorialize. Such is the glory of verbatim theater; these words are exactly what these people said.
Olivia Colman, who’s becoming a welcome staple in British-to-U.S. crossover shows, plays memorable busybody Julie. Her views on the sex workers prove difficult to swallow — in a moment of frustration, Julie praises the serial killer for getting a few off their once-clean street. At the same time, Julie goes on to organize a neighborhood beautification project as one of London Road’s most upbeat, likable citizens. Colman injects her character with an air of repressed sadness that somehow makes the despicable thing she’s said almost forgivable, even if you can’t and shouldn’t forget it; Blythe exposes what “good” people are capable of thinking and saying.
Norris translates London Road to film far more successfully than so many other directors of musicals who opt for a stagy look. This is filmed on a real street with real houses. Muted grays enshroud the frame. Natural light casts shadows on the characters in their simple homes as they accuse their neighbors of atrocious crimes. The strangest element of London Road is Tom Hardy’s presence in a seven-minute scene as a nervous cab driver who knows everything about serial killers but also continually professes his innocence (even though nobody asked in the first place). Hardy’s likely there for the sake of the marquees, but London Road is so creative and moving it doesn’t even need him.