London Road is the people’s story, and that gives the film its power
- Credit: Archant
Playwright Alecky Blythe, author of the National Theatre’s verbatim stage show London Road met Arts Editor Andrew Clarke at Ipswich Film Theatre and explained how a very theatrical work has become a most unusual film
Alecky Blythe pays great attention to detail. That’s her stock in trade. That is how she recreates real life, real people, on stage and now on film. Her critically acclaimed play London Road, about how a community healed itself in the wake of the Ipswich murders, has been turned into a lauded musical film. In the spirit of the way she works, the interview has been transcribed in a verbatim style.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you work and the genesis for the original stage version of London Road?
“Verbatim drama is the way that I work. I was working on a commission for The Royal Court during 2006 which was a play that ended up being called The Girlfriend Experience. It’s set in a parlour full of working girls. It was set in Bournemouth, and when the murders started happening the women in this parlour said: ‘Ipswich is where you need to be if you are writing about this world’. When I first went to Ipswich I was exploring whether it was part of the story that I was already telling. When I got to Ipswich, all the murders had been carried out but no arrests had been made, and the town was going through a quite extraordinary period of unrest and uncertainty. I remember talking to people and realised early on that this had nothing to do with the piece I was already writing for The Court – but I did recognise that there was an interesting story to be told in terms of what happens to a town – the ripples which spread out into the wider community. That was how it began.”
How long did your research take?
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“About two-and-a-half years. It was about six months after my first trip that I met (composer) Adam Cork at a National Theatre workshop. The idea was to pair up writers and composers to see if that may stimulate any ideas for new work. I took my early Ipswich material with me and we found that the way that Adam worked with the music strengthened those feelings I had picked up at the time, of women shoppers being scared of going out.
“What Adam did was that he listened to the real intonations, he listened to the way that people spoke, and set them to music, very precisely, including all the coughs, stutters and mispronunciations, so it was very life-like and not like a typical musical. Then it was six months later that I revisited Ipswich again because the trial was going to be back at Ipswich. It was then I got the Evening Star, the local paper, and there was a story on the front page about the London Road in Bloom competition and it was at that point that I focused my attention on the local community. Previously I had intended to make a piece about the town of Ipswich. Now I was going: ‘Oh right. There’s something really special happening in London Road’ and I went knocking on doors and I found that particular community really wanted to tell their story, about how they had come together, how they had set up a neighbourhood watch, how they were now holding quiz nights and Christmas parties and this gardening competition. I got to know them and kept tabs on them over the next couple of years, really. By building a sense of community was the way that they got through it.”
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That second visit provided the focus. Was there an obvious theme or were you looking for a route through?
“I think the National had commissioned it by this time and I kept going back to make sure I had everything, in case I had missed something. I think it was after an early draft when Tom Morris, a director I was working with at the time, asked me the question: ‘Who are you most interested in?’ I had almost equal balance on media, residents, town folk and there wasn’t really a central core, and it was at that point I realised that it was the residents. The residents were the people who were the closest to the story. They were the story and it was then I started culling other storylines. It was all good material but perhaps it wasn’t quite focused enough. I then went back and re-interviewed people and started asking questions about things that I hadn’t been around for. What they felt like at the time. What they felt about the arrest. So it came into focus as I was making it.”
Did you have to start from scratch when making the film or was it a case of just tweaking the play script?
“When we made the film it was really a case of re-imagining the story. The film is more chronological than the play was. Then there was the question of having to cut back a little bit on the number of residents we feature and perhaps they can’t all be quite so equal. I lost count of the number of drafts I did. When you do a film script each draft is printed on a different colour. I think I went through all the colours of the rainbow. I didn’t meet all the residents until 2007, so for the film I had to put them in the marketplace during 2006. I had to work out what they would have been doing.
“The point of it is that it is not one person’s story, it’s the community’s story, and that’s what gives the film and the play its power. It’s the story of people coming together on their own and that’s incredibly powerful. No one person could have done that. Because they had lived through that shared experience, that’s what joined them together, regardless of age, background or those things which normally set you apart.”
How did you cope with transferring a very theatrical stage show into a more naturalistic film presentation?
“Fortunately we had the same production designer, Katrina Lindsay, for the stage show and the film, and she just asked the question: ‘What’s the language of the film?’ As you say, it is much more naturalistic. You can’t have a hanging basket coming out of a tea urn like you can on stage – that’s part of the magic of theatre – but you can come up with other strong images which work equally well.
“As you know, London Road in Ipswich doesn’t have gasometers at the end of the road but that was quite a strong, clear, visual image. Because for (director) Rufus (Norris) that represented the scale of the problem that dwarfed the residents; and then, of course, there was the opportunity to make it all look beautiful with the hanging baskets at the end. It’s about making the road itself a character that heals through the film.”
Adam was always going to do the film?
“Oh yes, absolutely... Apart from his musical ability, his sensitivity to the material was really extraordinary and the choral elements when the community comes together were brilliant and really shine through in the way that he has written the music. It really is all about the healing power of song.”
What about the Ipswich accent?
“If you listen to the tapes you quickly realise there’s no generic Ipswich accent. It’s all in the detail. Some people on that road have come from Essex, some from further afield, and that’s what you get in a community: lots of people from different backgrounds coming together. The phraseology is important, too, and I was there all the time, getting them to listen to the tapes and going: ‘No, the stress is not on the A there, it is more aaarrr’ and so on. Yes, the actors had the script but for the first three weeks they were rehearsing with earphones to get those speech patterns right. So the lines go into them in a different way to learning a script. So they learn what they say and how they say it together.”
Do you know why such a tragic story has chimed with so many people?
“I think it’s because it’s a redemptive story; a lot of people can appreciate it. Also, I think I was lucky to have been taken in by The National at such an early stage and then paired up with someone brilliant. We were then nurtured and not forced to come up with anything. It was allowed to grow quite gently. I felt I could explore different avenues and it gave me time to allow those relationships to grow with the people of London Road.
“You get the opportunity to collaborate with people you just spark off. We are very different in lots of ways but we obviously have shared interests and passions. Because Rufus was passionate about the show, because he had just made his film Broken just after directing the stage version of London Road, the way was clear to make London Road the film. A lot of things in life is about timing and, for us, for London Road, the timing was right.”
London Road (cert 15) is now in cinemas.