A real life atrocity becomes an uplifting musical with London Road

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      Starring Olivia Colman. Rated PG

      A serial killer stalked the UK city of Ipswich in 2006, taking the lives of five sex workers in the depressed residential area that gives this film its title. A daring National Theatre production in 2011 compiled interviews with the residents of London Road, whose nightmare went from bad to worse when it transpired that the killer—forklift driver Steven Wright—was living right in their midst.

      Those interviews would be spun into a kind of operetta by composer Adam Cork and lyricst Alecky Blythe, now adapted for the screen with extraordinary results by the same team, joined again by stage director Rufus Norris who makes his second foray into movies after 2012’s Broken.

      Set largely on the street of the title, London Road at first blush might appear to be a little macabre, if not thoroughly off-putting. Towering steel gasometers, those monstrous relics of Victorian Britain, dominate the skyline in a film that seldom leaves its primary location, offering a subliminal reminder of Jack the Ripper’s stalking ground, not to mention the grim industrial North of the Yorkshire Ripper 90 years later.

      That’s where any hint of unwholesomeness ends. Focusing on the impact of the killings on the community—Wright himself is a presence here only in news reports of his arrest and eventual conviction—London Road emerges as a marvellous, uplifting exercise, brimming with humanity and sensitivity towards its subject matter.

      As Julie, Peep Show’s Olivia Colman is the closest thing we get to a central character in a uniformly fine ensemble cast that includes an opaque, unattached handyman (The Brothers Grimsby’s Paul Thornley) and an array of wishing-to-be-cosy homebodies (Eastender’s Anita Dobson among them). A homemaker with a 14-year-old daughter, Julie is the most active in coaxing her paranoid neighbours out of their gasfire-stained sitting rooms and into fish and chips suppers at the community hall.

      The score—and it’s brilliant—is more John Adams than Stephen Sondheim, with time signatures built on the grunts, asides, and grammatical loop-de-loops that characterize the true rhythms of speech. Tom Hardy is predictably magnetic in his cameo as a taxi driver with a serial killer fixation, but the real showstopper comes right before, with two teenage girls in matching pink hoodies sussing out the local men in a number called “It Could Be Him”.

      Everyone here manages to slip in and out their singing parts while maintaining the kind of naturalism we’ve come to expect from Brit thesps. If it verges on caricature, and there are more than a few comic moments here that could have been struck from an early Mike Leigh movie, London Road survives on heart, even as it avoids sentimentality. Julie has a final word to camera that’s difficult to hear, but painfully and courageously honest.

      Indeed, Cork and Blythe could have dusted this enterprise with a little sparkle magic and taken the more manipulative route. Instead, they let real people speak for themselves—warts, rainbows, yellow balloons, and all—while a remarkable coda involving the sex workers who survived Wright's atrocities further vanquishes any fear that London Road, from conception seven years ago until now, is anything but the transformative work of art that emerges on screen.