Hackney-based playwright Alecky Blythe is one of the UK’s leading verbatim theatre practitioners, with her plays created from real dialogue and real life events. Last year she used it to great effect in Little Revolution, about the London Riots. Now she is involved in a film adaptation of her greatest triumph to date, the acclaimed musical London Road, about the serial murders of five sex workers in Ipswich in 2006.
What drew you to this dark story?
At the time I was collecting material for my film The Girlfriend Experience – the women were saying I should go to Ipswich, because that’s where the story was. Eventually I did, in case I found anything I could use. It was so interesting, so dynamic. It was an extraordinary time that people just wanted to talk about. For ages the material sat on my shelf. I returned for the trial 18 months later to gauge the temperature, and that’s when I found out about London Road in Bloom, a flower competition residents were running. My focus then became specific, and London Road became central to the story. It was one that hadn’t yet been told, about a community coming together to heal itself.
What you do on the stage is very innovative. How does it translate to film?
The big challenge is that film is more visual. Verbatim is by its nature wordy, so it was my intention to consciously pick up active material on the street. I spoke to people when they were shopping, or at work, though I still did have to invent scenes and create a different type of stage direction. In film, viewers want to indulge their visual sense, so I tried to tackle that.
How important was it to you that the killer had no part in the film?
I didn’t want that to be the focus. I wasn’t asking about him or the women in my interviews; verbatim isn’t gossip, it’s about how people are affected. I wanted to know what it was like living on the same street as a serial killer, and people responded well to that. They didn’t want to talk about sensationalist stuff, they just wanted to offload.
Why do you think music works so well in London Road?
I’d always wanted to make a musical. In my play Cruising, there’s a scene where a couple dance a waltz to Stevie Wonder. It’s such a relief from all the talking, and it gave me the idea to make a verbatim piece with music for release. Later, I attended a workshop at the National Theatre with several writers and composers. I took some stuff to experiment with – material I’d collected at the time of the Ipswich murders. The composer Adam Cork and I just found that music worked so well with the interviews of scared women and chivalrous men. They were bitty and fragmented, but the music glued them together and enriched the subject matter. Adam was so brilliant, so forensic with the detail that there was a real joy in the challenge of lifting the speech. We found originality in the patterns.
How do you think people endure this kind of event?
Through coming together. Cultural and social boundaries don’t matter in an extraordinary situation. Friendship and connecting in a shared experience is what got them through. The people of Ipswich dared to go out and found that, through awful circumstances, they connected. It’s a commonality in all my work.
What do you hope viewers take away from this?
Ultimately it is uplifting. There’s a bittersweet ending. These people now have friendship and each other, and a community that looks out for them. I want viewers to take away the power of community.