Down London Road

Published September 9, 2015

In 2006, within a span of 10 days, five prostitutes were murdered in the quiet English town of Ipswich. The victims had all worked adjacent to London Road, and the residents of that street were intimately involved in the crime’s aftermath; one of their very own neighbors, Steve Wright, was arrested for the killings. British playwright Alecky Blythe and her collaborator, composer Adam Cork, adapted this series of real-life events for the National Theatre’s 2011 stage production of London Road, and the play’s format was surprising: a genre-bending murder mystery/documentary/musical. Blythe has since transformed the play into a film by the same name, with London Critics’ Circle-nominated Rufus Norris as director. It begins with a seemingly simple promise from Blythe: “This is what they said… Exactly as they said it.”

The aforementioned statement is exactly what verbatim theater, the unique format that Blythe is known for, requires: One conducts extensive interviews around a subject and translates that into a script for stage or screen, with all rhythm and verbal static—ums, ahs, likes, and yeahs—included. Blythe, who started out as an actor and studied at the University of Warwick, transitioned into writing in 2002 when she participated in a workshop led by British actor and director Mark Wing-Davey. A pioneer of verbatim theater, Wing-Davey learned the format from Maryland-born academic and actor Anna Deavere Smith of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

After founding her own verbatim theater company, Recorded Delivery, in 2003, and producing seven verbatim projects, Blythe traveled to Ipswich and interviewed the residents of London Road as they first dealt with the murders and their neighbor’s arrest. She returned as they experienced the trial of Steve Wright and strived to recover. “You keep showing up,” Blythe says. “It’s about building up that trust … I’m still there, knocking on their doors, two years later.” After the play’s multiple Laurence Olivier Award nominations, Blythe decided to use the same cast from the two theatrical runs of London Road in the film adaptation with two additions: Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, Hot Fuzz, The Iron Lady) and Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight).

We spoke with Blythe over the phone while she was at home in East London.

HALEY WEISS: What drew you to verbatim theater?

ALECKY BLYTHE: It was one of many classes I was taking part in because I was an out-of-work actor. I was trying all different approaches, really, and I was getting to a stage where the work that I was auditioning for I wasn’t getting, and I wasn’t actually that excited even if I had got the job. So, I was starting to think about creating my own work. Actually, when I signed up to the workshop, I didn’t quite realize what it involved; I thought it was more traditional writing. When I got there, and [Mark Wing-Davey] explained that you go interview people I thought, “Oh, okay, you don’t actually have to write anything down!” So I took part in this workshop, I took to it quite well, and then I asked [Mark Wing-Davey] if, with his blessing, I could go and make a show inspired by his class, and he encouraged me to do that. The play I made was called Come Out Eli and that launched me as a writer, sort of unintentionally. I was planning to try and get an acting agent, but the play ended up being quite successful.

WEISS: I read that you were working on The Girlfriend Experience, [a verbatim play centered on prostitutes in a brothel], when you began London Road, and that the women in the brothel where you were conducting interviews suggested you take a look at what was going on in Ipswich. How did you proceed from there?

BLYTHE: I had been going down to the brothel for quite a long time and suddenly, at the end of 2006, when the murders were being carried out, business was quite slow at this particular parlor even though it wasn’t in Ipswich. And the women said, “You should be in Ipswich, that’s where the big story is,” and I said, “No, no, no, my story is about you women here.” But in the end I did decide to investigate, even though I thought it seemed to be a different kind of story. I went along anyway and I got very different material. Even though I realized it wasn’t going to be anything to do with The Girlfriend Experience, it was rich, and interesting, and spontaneous, and people were living through this extraordinary time and I just happened to be there capturing it. I stayed for as long as I could, and then Steve Wright was arrested, so the atmosphere changed and got a little bit more normal. But I did manage to capture some of this extraordinary moment that was going on when you have five women who have been found dead and no arrests have been made in really what’s quite a provincial town. It’s not a big inner city like London or Manchester—this thing was a real shock for the people who lived there.

WEISS: Were they open when you approached them about interviews or were they hesitant?

BLYTHE: It depended on who I approached but I found that once I explained to people that I wasn’t from the press, that I was from the theater, that helped. Also, people realized my line of questioning; I wasn’t trying to get any inside information on the missing girls. I was asking people, “What’s it like to be living in Ipswich at this sort of time?” And that was something they did want to talk about, because through talking they were trying to make sense of it for themselves.

WEISS: A musical doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for a play about a series of murders. What made you choose to incorporate that?

BLYTHE: Well, I didn’t plan on it when I went down [to Ipswich]. I wasn’t thinking, “This is going to be a musical.” I basically collected my material from the time of the murders, and then Steve Wright was arrested, and I thought, “I don’t think I really have enough for a whole play.” But I was invited to do a workshop at the National Theatre Studio where they experiment, if you like, and invite various writers and artists to come and try things out. I was invited about six months after the murders had happened to go and take part in a workshop that paired up writers with composers. I took along my Ipswich material, literally because I had it on the shelf, and some other material I had on another subject. I just thought, “Well, I need something,” because of the way I work. Unlike other writers who just come with a blank page, I need to bring some materials to the workshop in order for us to experiment. I was paired up with Adam Cork—I don’t know why, but I’m very glad that I was. I knew very little about him, he knew very little about verbatim, and that was great. It was a little bit daunting, in one way, but I knew I wanted to make a musical even though I know very little about them—or even less then, maybe a little bit more now. [laughs] But not a lot more.

We found that the Ipswich material worked very well with music because what I had at the time was lots of what I’d call vox poppy snippets of women queuing up for rape alarms, men acting in quite a brave way—men as protectors—or men as the suspects. I found that the music brought these otherwise slightly separate statements all together. You could tie them together, and repeat certain words. Also there was this heightened atmosphere and I felt that the music helped portray that emotion of fear and suspicion. So, actually, what we thought by the end of the week—gosh, I think we found not only a working method together, because Adam works very closely with the material and was faithful to it, listening very carefully to the way people spoke but also making it musical—but also we thought, “Well, actually, there’s subject matter here that we’re interested in.” And it was announced that the trial of Steve Wright was going to be back in Ipswich the following year, so for me, it meant that the story would be brought back to life again the town. … It meant that all the press was back in Ipswich and a lot of people were having to relive [the time of the murders] even if they didn’t want to. So, there were these various elements and like you said, it’s an unusual choice—it wasn’t like I woke up one day going, “I’m going to make a musical about the Ipswich murders!” [both laugh] It was much more organic than that.

WEISS: Did you encounter any skepticism in making a musical about such serious subject matter?

BLYTHE: Oh, definitely, and I think that’s understandable because the term musical has certain connotations, and even though it probably is the closest thing to describe what we’ve done, it really isn’t very much like a normal musical that people would expect. People jump to certain conclusions, first when they hear musical, and then when they hear it’s about the Ipswich murders. Actually, both of those things are slightly misleading. It’s not a musical in the traditional sense, it’s almost more like a sung poem in places. Also, it’s not about the Ipswich murders; it’s about the community who were affected by the murders and how they dealt with it. It’s not about the women [who were killed]—it doesn’t depict them, or their families—it’s not set in the eye of the storm, which I think allows for the retelling of the story a few degrees away from the center of it. I can understand how on paper if people read about it, without it properly explained, they would jump to conclusions. It could easily be done in bad taste, I think, but I’m pleased to say I think we’ve handled it sensitively because of the angle we’ve come at it from allows us a bit of space.

WEISS: There’s something about the verbatim format when combined with musical elements that seems to reinforce the surreal nature of the situation that this neighborhood finds itself in. Breaking into song doesn’t read as false; if anything, it seems to heighten emotions and calls attention to the exact words that these people said.

BLYTHE: Yes, it does, and it seems to draw attention to some of the peculiarities as well. I hope that it elevates them. They’re the normal, everyday man and woman that you could find in any town in England, but because of the poetry of the way they speak, that Adam has elevated with the music, their words sort of become epic. I think their story takes on epic proportions somehow and seems to resonate with people outside of Ipswich. It’s what happens to a community, often, when a tragedy takes hold; that’s the story [the film is] telling.

WEISS: The film is an interesting study of how a community reacts when presented with a threat. Those who live in the town vacillate between fear, sadness, and almost an excitement that something like this is happening so close to them. I think of the scene where the two young girls start off smiling while singing, “you automatically think it could be him,” but then they become frightened, and then excited again, while also singing, “I’m just gonna, like, cry.”

BLYTHE: That song title for me, [“It Could be Him], I heard them say it but it was also something that I was thinking in my head as I was walking around Ipswich. You do automatically think it could be him, it could be him. It was something that I heard a lot. [The girls’] interview to me stood out because of that emotional excitement people don’t really think about. A normal writer would write town, fear, everyone’s very, very scared, but you forget that actually our emotions are a little more complicated and messy than that. And within that, there’s also the excitement; obviously, it’s not that they want anyone else to be murdered, but it suddenly makes this town, which never gets in the news and is a little, everyday town, the stuff of the main headlines, and ends up being the stuff of a movie. If you’re a 14-year-old girl living through that time, it was weirdly exciting, and that doesn’t mean that those girls are sick in the head—this is a very human reaction to that extraordinary time.

LONDON ROAD IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT THE TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.