Royal Court Theatre, 7th September 2017
Another useless review as this revival of Jim Cartwright’s seminal debut play is about to end its run. But I would be pretty confident it will pop up again somewhere in the next few years. And that is because, as this production shows, despite it being set firmly in the mid 1980s, it is as relevant today as it was then.
The play is set on an unnamed road in an unspecified Lancashire town, largely, over one night. The vignettes are threaded together by our pukish narrator Scullery, here played by Lemn Sissay, of whom more later. We alternate between scenes of raucous comedy and tragic monologues (and most memorably an affecting duologue). The dignity of labour is in short supply in this part of the North, money is tight and hope crushed by circumstance. So most of the residents are focussed on living for today with lashings of booze and sex offering release. For some characters though the absence of money, of love, of friends fuels nostalgia, or worse, despair.
Now too often this set-up can turn into a theatrical misery fest. What makes this different is Jim Cartwright’s beautiful writing. It is a cliche but there is real warmth and poetry here. The words are so powerful that you feel you immediately know these characters despite there being no attempt to provide a before of after to their lives outside this night. He doesn’t need to bash you over the head with the message and never offers up caricatures or stereotypes. John Tiffany’s expert direction does not deny the irony of a bunch of well heeled punters in Sloane Square gawping at a bunch of actors playing those left behind in “Thatcher’s Britain”, but still allows the pathos to shine through. I haven’t the faintest idea how we reconcile the social, economic and cultural divide between the haves and haves nots in this country today but road remains a powerful document of that divide.
Chloe Lamford’s set is a model of effective economy, with a glass lightbox acting as a device to frame some of the key scenes/monologues and heighten the voyeurism. And John Tiffany, much like in his recent Glass Menagerie (The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****), with lighting designer, Lee Curran, takes the opportunity to plunge the backdrop into darkness at the crucial moments. I gather this makes for a very different (and shorter) experience to the original promenade version of the play but it facilitates absolute audience concentration. For an ageing post-punk type like me the soundtrack was also a joy – an ensemble routine set to the Fall’s Hit the North was the highlight. There is a parallel between the poetry of Mark E Smith (just to remind you the greatest songwriter of all time) and Jim Cartwright’s lines. I even tolerated Elbow as the backing to a surprisingly effective conclusion involving the whole cast.
And the cast were excellent. I have seen the TV version of the play with the mix of cast members from the original Royal Court productions and other acting luminaries and, for me, this troupe matched them (though as the play is so well written that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise). I think I have heard Lemn Sissay, the poet and broadcaster, on the radio but his performance here was terrific and I now see from his biography what an admirable man he is. Michelle Fairley shows just how powerful an actor she is as hilarious seductress Helen, and then again as the desperate, wheedling Brenda. I am so looking forward to her Cassius in the forthcoming Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre with Ben Whishaw, David Calder and David Morrissey – surely a winner. Mark Hadfield similarly shows, firstly, his comic timing as pissed lothario Brian and, secondly, his ability to invest imagery into Jerry’s nostalgic reminiscences. June Watson as lonely pensioner Molly nearly brought a tear to my eye, I kid you not. Mike Noble’s curious Skin-Lad is the one ostensibly violent character in the plan and his missive was delivered with real menace and mystery.. Faye Marsay as Clare, (hard to believe this was her stage debut), and Shane Zaza (watch this young man) as Joey, really hit home with the play’s most astonishing scene as the young couple who have literally given up on life. Liz White as Valerie delivered another affecting monologue lovingly bemoaning her workless, drink addled, pathetic husband. She also played Carol, who, along with Mike Noble now as Eddie, Faye Marsay now as Louise and Dan Parr as Brink, deliver the final, famous (at least to me), epiphanous scene with total conviction, helped of course by the voice of the master, Otis Redding.
So any way you look at it this was an excellent and worthy revival, of a masterly play on the stage where it premiered. I haven’t seen any of Mr Cartwright’s other plays, including Little Voice, either on the stage or TV, though not for want of trying. I hope I shall. And I highly recommend you find a way to see road. I suspect that, unfortunately, its power or concerns will not diminish through time.