Stage-to-screen musicals: London Road released in cinemas on 12th June

The stage musical Bend It Like Beckham is the latest film-to-stage adaption to hit the West End, following in suit of such other productions as Made In Dagenham, The Bodyguard and Ghost. This well-used practice of taking a popular film and repackaging it into a musical theatre format has proven itself to be a successful method of stagey story-telling, and it works both ways too. Many West End musicals have been made into film versions, with Les Miserables, Into The Woods and Jersey Boys being some of the most recent examples of how good musical theatre can look when taken off-stage and moved onto the big screen. The latest musical to make the move to movies is the National’s award-winning production of London Road, which is released in cinemas around the UK on 12th June 2015.

Anticipation for the London Road film is high, which is hardly surprising given the musical’s original success on the stage. More than that though, it’s also a very different creature from previous stage-to-screen adaptions I think, as the likes of Les Miserables, which has been playing for almost 30 years, is known to millions around the world, and is, all in all, a much bigger show, received the Hollywood treatment that was needed to do justice to such an iconic musical. The London Road film, in comparison, is less about the A-Lister actors and big budget effects, etc, and more about the material and the striking style of the production, which set itself apart from other musicals on the stage and is set to do the same on the big screen.

London Road premièred at the National Theatre in April 2011 and was an instant hit. The original British musical documented the events of the 2006 Ipswich murders, but rather than focus on murderer Steve Wright and the five victims, the production instead offered a real-life insight into the local community and their response to the murders. Playwright Alecky Blythe travelled to Ipswich and spoke the residents there, both before and after Wright’s arrest, gathering the hours of material which would later form the backbone of London Road. With the idea of incorporating music into the production, she was paired with composer Adam Cork for the workshop at the National, and together, they endeavoured to turn Blythe’s recorded interviews into a musical…which they did, with great success. The endearing quality of the musical is that it’s a verbatim theatre piece. Verbatim theatre is the technique of using the precise spoken words of real people to construct a form of documentary theatre, and that is exactly what Blythe and Cork did with London Road. Every word in the musical came from the residents of Ipswich that Blythe interviewed, and each line is reproduced by the actors exactly as it was originally spoken, with the musical segments closely following the melodic speech patterns of the recorded speech. The result is an extraordinary and sensitive work that tells the story of a local community’s response to finding out there’s a serial killer living in their midst, in their own words.

The London Road musical was a critically acclaimed success that garnered 5* reviews and had two sell-out runs at the National, as well as winning Best New Musical at the 2011 Critic’s Circle Theatre Awards and receiving four Olivier Award nominations. The London Road film will very soon have the chance to prove itself as a worthy counterpart that can hopefully match, or perhaps even eclipse, the success of the original stage musical.

The film stands a very good chance of doing just that. It remains to be seen how effectively the material transfers from stage to screen, but one thing is sure, and that is that it’s in very good hands. First of all, the film is directed by Rufus Norris. Now Artistic Director of the National, Norris directed the original stage production and has a very real connection with it, as too do the original cast. That’s why it’s a wonderful sign of what to expect from the film that the entire original London cast have reunited for the big screen. They’ll be joined by a few new faces that include Anita Dobson and Olivia Colman, as well as a cameo by Tom Hardy as cab driver Mark.

A live première event with a cast and crew Q&A will be broadcast to cinemas around the UK on Tuesday  9th June 2015 ahead of the film’s general release on Friday 12th June 2015. I, for one, am excited to see it, as are many, many other theatre fans. London Road was a minimalist musical that let the power of the material and the brilliance of the cast speak for themselves. Every ‘um’ and ‘er’ serves a purpose and is a deliberate choice, and the cast dealt with the complex nature of verbatim theatre superbly, delivering their lines and the songs with a phenomenal level of precision that was perfectly complimented by Cork’s score. It’s not about Steve Wright. It didn’t sensationalise the murders, and similarly, it didn’t lose any of the story’s impact through the addition of song. Blythe and Cork struck a perfect balance with all of the ingredients used and created a very different musical that is a pioneering achievement in the theatre industry. The National could have just done an NT Live version of London Road, where the live stage performance is recorded and aired, but the musical was so innovative and made such an impact that it instead received a £3 million budget and the big screen treatment, which is nothing less than what it deserves.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 4th June 2015

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