Olivia Colman stars in London Road, a musical about the murder of prostitutes in Ipswich.
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London Road is a musical about the Ipswich prostitute murders - and it's a triumph

In that grey area between documentary and fiction, the movie finds a new kind of truth.

Our cinemas have become impossibly crowded with new films—there are 12 out in this relatively light week, as well as a re-release of Marco Ferreri’s 1973 La Grande Bouffe. (It’s about four friends who eat themselves to death: is this a distributor’s idea of a swipe at the jam-packed release schedules?)

In that context, it is inevitable that some great cinema will be neglected. Though it was released three weeks ago, I only recently caught up with the film adaptation of the musical London Road, which was staged in 2011 at the National Theatre. I was sorry to have missed that original version—I came to the verbatim theatre work of its writer, Alecky Blythe, fairly late with Little Revolution, her play last year about the 2011 London riots. So I can’t comment on the transfer of London Road from one medium to another. The film, though, is nothing short of a triumph.

Blythe had visited Ipswich in 2006 during the investigation into the murders of five women there, and interviewed local residents about their reactions. From these tapes she assembled a piece of verbatim theatre, using only the exact words—every “um”, every “ah”, every repetition and stammer—that were spoken. The addition of a musical element, in which she and her co-writer Adam Cork transformed large sections of this script into song, makes the raw material feel elevated, at times even exalted.

Rufus Norris, who also directed the play, displays a steady hand and a feel for cinematic rhythm that was absent entirely from his previous and highly exploitative film, Broken. He stages shots and scenes with a directness that bulldozes any initial scepticism about whether a verbatim musical can come alive on screen. We detect the first hints of words married to music in the bouncing syllables of newsreaders reporting on the murders. Then a mother, Julie (Olivia Colman), sings the occasional line over her shoulder at us as she walks the streets from which the victims, all of whom worked as prostitutes in the area, were plucked.

The punchiest and most overwhelming musical numbers come back-to-back within the first third of the film. “Everyone is Very Nervous” takes place in the middle of a Christmas shopping spree presided over by an eerie plastic Santa, and hinges on a repeated “um” that you can feel in your chest like a jabbing, accusatory finger. “It Could Be Him”, sung in a kind of breathless gallop by two teenagers (including Eloise Laurence, who stood out in Broken) as they scan the city for the face of the killer, is as crisply choreographed and edited as any action sequence; the techno pulse that gradually emerges from the music is incongruous and urgent. That segues into a tentative song performed by a taxi driver (Tom Hardy) whose interest in the case tips further into the unsavoury with every protestation of innocence that he makes. Hardy, who has been directed to reach charmingly for notes outside his range, is at once comical, creepy and rather sad.

"Everyone is Very Nervous" from London Road.

If the overall effect suggests a Ken Loach remake of The Umbrellas of CherbourgLondon Road is closer in tone and character to Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, another film which explores fruitfully the dislocation between actors and the words emerging from their mouths. (Barnard’s picture, a portrait of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, featured actors lip-synching to interviews with the real-life subjects.) In that grey area between documentary and fiction, the movie finds a new kind of truth.

Without departing from the words spoken, it uses the emphasis and enhancement available to the musical form to tease out slip-ups, malapropisms and subtle verbal betrayals. And visually it finds some beautiful rapprochements in some unexpected places (the glance exchanged near the end of the film between a prostitute and a young girl at a street party), and chilling ruptures in others (Colman’s final speech is particularly electrifying). The picture is still playing at a few venues, in scattered screening-times. It’s worth the trek to wherever you have to go to see it.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis