Anita Dobson stars in new musical London Road, alongside Olivia Colman, Tom Hardy and the entire cast of the original theatre production, which had two successful runs at the National Theatre. Based on interviews with real-life residents of London Road in Ipswich, the film delves into how they were affected by the notorious murders of five prostitutes in 2006.
We had a chat with Anita about how it felt to be a newcomer to the project and how she dealt with the challenges of writer Alecky Blythe’s “verbatim theatre”.
How were you approached for the project?
My agent rang up and said, “You’ve got an interview at the National to meet David Shrubsole [musical director]”, who I realise now is a genius, and I learned a couple of snatches of a very odd little tune. He sent me away and I said, “well, what do you want me to do with them?” and he said, “well, learn them and come back”, so I did.
I then met Rufus [director], Alecky [writer] and Adam [composer], who are the three huge components in this venture, and having done so I realised how quirky this project was, because of Alecky’s verbatim theatre – in the sense that you hear what the character says and you repeat it verbatim afterwards – and also the amazing score that Adam had done, which was quite beautiful, but tricky. I then met Rufus who was so delightful I thought, “yes, I definitely want to work with this man!” And the combination of the four of them – David, Adam, Alecky and Rufus – was just an offer too good to refuse, really!
You spoke about the verbatim bits being a bit tricky – did you have to come at it in a different way to learning a song normally?
Yes, very different! It is a song, but it’s not a song, because you’re learning dialogue but not dialogue as we learn it normally in a script: it’s got every cough, every hiccup, every mispronunciation… every pause – that’s all sung! So you’re singing, and it’s very odd little phrases, but I have to say once you get it, it’s very exhilarating – and singing with the ensemble when it all happens is wonderful, remarkable.
It was an adaptation of a stage show – did that influence how things were shot in comparison to how a normal film would be done? Obviously a lot of the same people were involved…
It was done twice at the National – I didn’t see it and I wasn’t in it – but a lot of people who were in it were in the film. Everybody that was involved in it wanted to stay with it. It very much became a family, something sort of wonderful happened to all of the actors and actresses who were in it, they all sort of bonded together and wanted to stay together and kept in touch, and because of the weirdness of the project – it was so ground-breaking – I think they shared a common bond and that’s prevalent throughout the film as well. So I felt, coming in very late, that I was just introduced to this lovely family and made to feel extraordinarily welcome and made to feel that I now am a part of that family – albeit maybe a slightly distant cousin – so I’m really proud of that.
Were there rehearsals, like a stage show, to bring a sense of ensemble again, or was it straight in to start filming scene by scene?
No, we had rehearsals – we had to because there were some people who hadn’t done it before, and we had to re-rehearse for the people that had done it before, and also rehearse in order to bring them all together and make them a community because that’s what we were portraying. There had to be a sort of sense of the fact that the people all came together because of a really awful event that happened in Ipswich.
Speaking of community, your character was June – and I know that the piece was done by Alecky going to interview people in Ipswich and it was all verbatim – but was June a real person, or was it a fictionalized name put on to a resident?
No, she was a real person and she came on set – I met her, I saw photographs of her, I listened to her voice obviously, and she came on set the day that we filmed the street party, as did the other residents, and I was so thrilled that I actually got to meet her. She was a very potent character – she liked her jewellery and her nail varnish and her hair done and her clothes and everything – but sadly she passed away this year so I’m just so grateful that I got to meet her and she got to come and see us on the set. She loved it, she was such a liver of life – although she smoked like a trooper! That was quite difficult because of the fact I was playing a smoker and I didn’t want to smoke, so it was quite awkward – I think there’s quite a few moments when you see me either about to light up or putting one out or having one in my mouth, but you never actually see me puffing one!
Did you have any favourites in the cast or anybody that you’d worked with before, having done quite a lot of theatre?
Oh, my favourite had to be Howard Ward, who was playing my husband, who was just delightful. We had a lovely time together on set – he was fun, joyful, helpful… It was very objective this kind of process, and he was just by my side the whole time and I was just made to feel that we were a married couple and that there were lots of other married couples in the street, and it was just… The whole thing, for me, was a very joyful experience, although it was dealing with an appalling piece of suffering.
Why do you think it was made into a film? We’re used to having theatre streamed live now and watching in the cinema, but why do you think it went a step further and was actually a completely separate production, in a film?
Well, when I first heard it was originally being made into a musical, I was a little surprised. I thought, “Is this too soon? How are the mothers of these murdered girls going to feel?” Also, I was in Ipswich at the time of the murders. I was doing a pantomime there; you can imagine how difficult it was to try and get an audience. But having gone along and met them all, the love with which they wanted to put this film together – and also it wasn’t about the man, the murderer, it was about the girls and the impact these events had on the surrounding community, so you were looking at it from a slightly different point of view.
So something wonderful happened – not only did the cast bond, I think forever – I mean every time you see someone from the cast you feel full of joy because it was a good experience – but it also paid an enormous tribute to the murdered girls. I mean my first feeling of “is this a good idea?” was put to rest because the girls got off the streets, the girls got clean, the girls were shown that there was a better way of life, and a sort of mushroom effect has happened – people around them that see this community dealing with this awful thing have decided that they want to be a community too, they want to stop this from happening and these girls from ever living [like that] again. So a wonderful thing has happened, it’s kind of bred a sense of wholeness in people in that they want to be together and have a good community and live a good life – and I think that’s a wonderful thing.
I know that you’ve sung in the past, and this was a musical of sorts – do you think you’d be looking to do more musicals in the future?
Well I’ve just done Follies at the Royal Albert Hall, so that was a musical! I sort of dip in and out of them, but you’re quite right, I don’t do them as much as I have done, when I was younger. I think that’s just been due to choices really. I’ve just last year played Queen Elizabeth I [in BBC 2’s documentary series Armada], and stuff like that you can’t refuse, so I think it’s because things like that have come my way, that’s the way I’ve sort of been steered – but I loved doing Follies, and I loved doing London Road, and for me, I think what I’m trying to say in a nutshell is: I’m an actress that can sing, I’m not a singer. Everything I do, it has to be about the script, the character – and [then maybe] they happen to be able to sing. If you ask me to stand up and sing a pretty song… really, that’s not my thing and I’m not very good at it because I’m not investing it with anything different and there are much better voices out there… But if you ask me to sing a song and play a character that happens to go into song, yeah, I’m your gal!
London Road premieres on 9th June via NT Live and is on general release on 12th June. Visit londonroadfilm.co.uk for more information.
This interview opportunity was kindly provided by Picturehouse Entertainment and Freuds.