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Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre of London. ‘I have an instinct for caution that I don’t like in myself – so almost all of my professional choices have been trying to work against that.’ (Paul Plews)
Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre of London. ‘I have an instinct for caution that I don’t like in myself – so almost all of my professional choices have been trying to work against that.’ (Paul Plews)

Theatre

Rufus Norris and London Road’s rocky path from stage to big screen Add to ...

Whatever you make of London Road, there’s one thing for certain – you’ve never heard another movie like it.

Based on British playwright Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork stage show of the same name, the film is an entirely unique mix of documentary and musical. London Road, which opens this weekend in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, tells the story of a community in Ipswich, England, where five sex workers were killed in 2006. It follows the men and women who unwittingly lived on the same street as a serial killer through the police manhunt, the subsequent trial and the unrelenting media onslaught – with the songs all based on interviews conducted with real people.

It’s not the subject matter that’s the most unusual aspect of this musical – though that’s strange enough. It’s the way the music was written: Blythe’s lyrics are the actual words that Suffolk-accented interviewees from cab drivers to journalists to sex workers said to her, while Cork’s score is composed around the actual rhythms and musicality of how they said it.

This is an entirely new form – and the possibility of London Road being a complete and utter disaster is what motivated director Rufus Norris to tackle it, first on stage at the National Theatre in London, then on film.

“I have an instinct for caution that I don’t like in myself – so almost all of my professional choices have been trying to work against that,” says Norris, who was appointed artistic director of the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2015. “Fear of failure is a motivating factor.”

Norris was talking about London Road while visiting the Toronto International Film Festival a year ago – his first visit to Canada’s biggest city, which the avid swimmer hoped would include taking a dip in Lake Ontario.

At the time, Norris’s film – only the long-time stage director’s second, after 2012’s Broken – was set to open in Canadian theatres the following month, but it was repeatedly being pushed back. (“While the film played TIFF in 2015 with Cineplex already on-board as the Canadian distributor, similar to most theatrical releases we decided to hold the release until there was a U.S. distributor to ensure our efforts were in tandem,” explains Brad LaDouceur, vice-president at Cineplex Entertainment.)

The delay is in keeping with London Road’s path, however – where it has always seemed like the unlikeliest of projects. When rehearsals began for a short run in National Theatre’s smallest theatre in 2011, the creative team entertained the possibility that the show might never actually see the light of day. “The first four weeks, the company sat around pianos – and we had no idea if it was actually possible to sing,” recalls Norris.

London Road was eventually a hit with critics and audiences – and remounted on the National Theatre’s largest stage. But it never had a commercial run on the West End and, with its hard concept to sell and devilishly difficult score to perform, the musical has had very few professional stage productions since.

Canadian Stage in Toronto is one of only a couple of professional theatres outside the U.K. that dared to tackle it – in director Jackie Maxwell’s award-winning 2014 production that few who attended will soon forget. The international distribution of the film of London Road may spur further interest in stage productions, however.

While the National Theatre regularly broadcasts performances around the world through its NT Live cinema series, Norris and David Sabel, who heads digital strategy for the theatre company, felt that London Road required a different approach.

For decades, National Theatre hits have been made into feature films – from Amadeus to The Madness of King George, The History Boys to War Horse. But this is the first time the theatre company has taken the lead on making one – partnering with BBC FIlms.

The idea of a theatre company branching out into other media is not the National Theatre’s alone. In Canada, the Stratford Festival has followed the National Theatre into filming stage productions for cinema, TV and streaming online, while Toronto’s Soulpepper recently become involved in serial television with its CBC sitcom adapted from the play Kim’s Convenience.

Norris suspects this is the way of the future – with theatre companies looking to develop their most successful work into other forms, whether films or apps. “Our job is to make theatre – and our job is to move that medium forward,” he said. “But films are more likely now… I think London Road perhaps marks a sea change in that. “

London Road is different in many ways from the stage production – where 11 actors played all 70 parts. While all the performers from the original production appear in the film, different actors play each of the characters here – including Tom Hardy as a cab driver – to make sure it didn’t seem like a Klumps film. “We had to strip out anything that was theatrical – except for the central thing of singing the verbatim, which is an ask enough,” says Norris.

London Road’s subject matter can be considered off-putting, too – and while the musical is about a community healing itself after a tragedy, its residents don’t necessarily come off as entirely sympathetic. At one point, for instance, Julie – played in the film by Olivia Colman – says she might actually shake the hand of the serial killer who murdered five women in her neighbourhood.

It’s the insight into how real people actually think and speak, especially when there’s not a camera in their face, that makes verbatim theatre and now film such a fascinating form. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but less politically correct.

“Prostitution in our country, in Britain, is a problem that could be addressed in a number of different ways, but the media prevent any government from really being able to address it,” says Norris, who is now at work on a new verbatim piece about Brexit for the National Theatre. “And so it’s pushed away and it’s pushed away into corners like London Road – where very normal, reasonable people have to deal with, in this case, 30 girls working outside of their house.”

“Julie – these are very unpalatable, harsh things that she says – but she is the mother of teenage girls,” he says. “This is our job as storytellers – to ask people to step in the shoes of other people.”

London Road opens Nov. 18 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

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