London Road: How new film about Ipswich murder of five prostitutes captures a town dealing with immense tragedy

Our writer, who reported on the Suffolk Strangler, speaks to some of those on the street who thought they would be next

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The Independent Online

She was shaking. A killer was on the loose and Jane was convinced she must have had sex with him.“I know, I know, it coulda been me, I keep thinking about that,” she said as we sat in a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken near the football ground in Ipswich and she ripped open one sachet of sugar after another to pour into her tea. Twelve times. But it was the fear and not the sugar rush that was making her tremble.

This was the winter of 2006 and the Suffolk Strangler was making headlines. The police had yet to catch him. Five women had been found dead and naked in rivers and woodland in the days before we met, and Jane had known them all. Maybe she would be next.

They had all worked in the same shadows along the London Road, waiting for punters to come along and pay £40 a time for sex. Once in the car and under some stranger’s body, there was no escape, she said. “You are trapped. There is nothing you can do, not even move. You’re just his. He can do anything he wants. It’s perfect for a killer.”

I have no idea where Jane is now, but her gaunt face came instantly to mind when I saw the poster for the new film London Road. “Too soon,” I thought. “Too soon. The murders only happened nine years ago. How can anyone want to make a film about this?”

The mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and former lovers of those five women must still be so raw and their grief so easily stirred. Never mind that London Road stars Olivia Colman, Tom Hardy, and the entire cast of the award-winning National Theatre production from which it sprang.

It is only seven years since the lorry driver Steve Wright was convicted of killing Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol, Anneli Alderton, Paula Clenell and Annette Nicholls, who were aged between 19 and 29. How can their deaths possibly be material for a musical?

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The National Theatre production of ‘London Road’ (National Theatre)

That was what I thought, but then I saw the film.

There is a screening on 8 June in Ipswich, a live premiere with the cast and crew in London that will be shown in cinemas around the country on 8 June, and then a general release at the end of the week. It is superb: a powerful, unsettling piece of work built from words that were actually spoken by the people who were there at the time.

The dialogue and lyrics are taken verbatim from interviews with local residents, police officers, reporters and sex workers. Every hesitation, every repetition, every “um” and “er” is used.

“Everyone is very, very nervous and very uncertain of everything,” sing the cast in the opening scenes that show what a fearful, paranoid place Ipswich was as the bodies began to turn up and every man came under suspicion.

That was the atmosphere playwright Alecky Blythe found when she pitched up in Ipswich and asked people to talk to her. She had already been working with prostitutes in Bournemouth on a piece of verbatim theatre that became The Girlfriend Experience, staged at the Young Vic in London. “They told me to get up to Ipswich, because that was where it was all happening,” she says.

The first person who answered the door to her was Ron Alder, chairman of the London Road residents association, who is disarmingly frank about why he agreed to co-operate. “I’m a sucker for a pretty face. The first thing she said was: ‘Don’t worry, I’m not press!’”

That was a winning line for a man who felt harassed by the world’s media on his doorstep and angry that his road was now being described as the Ipswich red-light district. “There were four cherry-picker cranes within 20 yards of my front door, with cameras on the top. They would start up their generator at five in the morning. There was such a stream of people coming up my garden path that I said I should start charging admission.”

Other reporters were offering small fortunes to the women that the police insisted on calling “working girls”, but Jane resisted that, despite her dire circumstances. “It’s blood money,” she said, asking for no other payment from me than a bag of chips, a couple of bits of greasy chicken and a cup of super-sweet tea. “I’m talking for my own sanity. I want to get it straight in my head and maybe help other girls stay safe.”

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On-street prostitution has been virtually eliminated from the town, according to local authorities (Getty)

Jane looked older than 50 but had only just turned 30. Her eyes were hooded and her speech was slurred that night from the drugs she said she took to numb the pain of being a prostitute, although she had started doing it in the first place to feed a heroin addiction. Jane said she was on methadone now, and had stopped working the streets a few weeks earlier. “I know I must have been with him. The killer. I got out just in time, didn’t I? Not like the others.”

Flashes of eloquence showed the woman she had once been, and maybe could be again. I feared for how the film would portray women like her, whose lives are all too often demonised or romanticised, if they are thought about at all.

On one level, London Road tells a story of redemption that could belong in a feel-good film such as Calendar Girls: a struggling community wakes up to find a killer has been in its midst and that it is now condemned as seedy and dangerous. The residents get together, hesitantly at first, then overcome adversity with the help of quiz nights and hanging-basket competitions, culminating in a giggly street party with balloons. So far, so Richard Curtis. But London Road is better than that, because the words are real and keep setting off emotional bombs.

There is a moment of breathtaking honesty when Julie – a real-life resident whose words are spoken and sung by Colman – says she is glad the girls are gone and she would even shake the hand of the murderer to say thank you. “I did check with her, and she does stand by it,” Blythe says. “She is a good person. I hope you get to know her as a viewer before you hear those words. From her side of the street, having lived through what she has and all the chaos that prostitution brings – the drug paraphernalia, the kerb-crawlers – it is a better place now.

“People are complicated. I think Olivia portrays that very well.”

And what of the prostitutes? They walk through the increasingly happy scenes in London Road like spectres at a feast, shunned by the residents out of fear and disgust. They have dignity and strength and challenge the easy assumptions being made around them; again, the film uses their real words and the things they say are both honest and self-deceiving at times, both defiant and heartbreaking. They sing about how they have given up the game … except for the regulars they still see. They’ve given up drugs … well, almost.

I recognise it all well, having gone back to Ipswich a year after the murders to visit the Iceni project that helped the women so much (it is credited in the film). The police had arrested 120 men for kerb-crawling at the same time as getting the women out of the criminal system and increasing the help available to them, and it was working. All but one of the 28 who had worked the London Road were now off the streets, although some were selling sex in their own homes.

Jane was nowhere to be found, but a woman called Jo told me how she had been living in public toilets and taking heroin and crack before the project helped her to get clean. “It took something like the murders to shock me into coming here,” she said. That is echoed in the film, when the women sing that it took the murders for anyone to help them.

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The Police adopted a non-judgmental approach towards the female prostitutes at the time , but were far more punitive on the men trying to enlist their services (Getty)

Blythe also visited at that time, and was moved. “I found it upsetting, because you think that you can’t imagine ever becoming a working girl, but then you see how similar they are to you. They are not bad girls. They just got in with the wrong people that led them down the wrong path. That could happen to anybody.”

She is hoping that some of the women from Ipswich will come to the screening tomorrow.

“One of them did come to the theatre and found it upsetting but ultimately quite cathartic, a positive experience.”

What has happened to them? “I think someone from the Iceni project is in contact with a couple of them; he knows they are doing well, they have got kids, they are clean. A couple of them, he’s not sure about. The fear is, have they gone back to it?”

The hostility of some of the residents remains. “I showed them the film for the first time at Julie’s house. It was an amazing experience. Tears from them. and jokes like: ‘Hang on, Ron didn’t put the chairs out like that. It was me!’ ”

But then came the sight of Vicky, one of the prostitutes, walking through the street party that signals how much London Road has changed. “One of the residents went: ‘No, no, that’s not right. Why is she at our party?’ I said: ‘Please, just wait until you see how the film ends.’ They saw it, and understood.”

The end of London Road is hopeful but ambiguous. “There is a sense of that ongoing struggle that people have on the fringes of society.”

I would say there is also a sense that the problem has just been moved on – banished from London Road by police patrols, fresh paint and begonias.

Prostitution has moved off the streets over the past nine years, largely thanks to mobile phones and the internet, but still involves 61,000 women in Britain. They are 12 times more likely than other women to be murdered, and also far more likely to suffer violence, assault and rape.

So while it is jolly nice that the real London Road feels safe and clean again, I hope the same is true for Jane. Is it too soon for a film like this? No, not if it makes us think again about how we treat women like Jane. It is way past time that they were safe.