Monday, 31 July 2017

Theatre review: Road

In a rare instance of the Royal Court revisiting a past work, John Tiffany directs a 30th anniversary production of Road, Jim Cartwright’s slice of life in an unnamed Lancashire town. It seems a rather pointed revival of a play which comes down hard on Thatcher’s Britain, as despite the – nostalgic and funny by turns – period trappings it still feels relevant, its characters going out to get drunk and try to pull, covering up their desperation at the dead end their lives are in. Some have been led to unusual extremes, like Mike Noble’s Skin-Lad, a Buddhist skinhead, or Joey (Shane Zaza) and Clare (Faye Marsay,) dying in bed on hunger strike over something they can’t quite articulate. Most have more familiar stories of trying to cope though, and unemployed ex-sailor Scullery (Lemn Sissay) offers to be the audience’s tour guide over one typical Saturday night from dusk to dawn.

Tiffany’s idea is to present the street itself as a bustle of activity on a bare-ish stage with bricked-up windows and other nooks and crannies in which props can be hidden and discovered when needed.

But when we go to more intimate scenes a grubby, mirrored glass box rises up from the floor of Chloe Lamford’s set, and inside this we see the bleaker reality, often in soliloquy, as the residents confess their real problems and insecurities – one of the most memorable sees Liz White as a wife waiting up all night for her husband to come back from the pub where he’s spent all their dole money. Elsewhere Mark Hadfield’s Jerry locks himself indoors away from the noise outside, nostalgic for the past and unsure how he’s found himself with nothing in his old age; while June Watson is alternately funny and heartbreaking as a woman with dementia dolling herself up without being sure why.

Apparently the play was originally staged in promenade, which makes a lot of sense given the way it’s structured as a series of stops into different people’s lives: We see some of the characters wandering around over the course of the evening, but only spend any significant time with each of them once. These soul-baring moments are written in a poetic style and are beautifully performed, although a number of them are overlong, especially in the first act – there’s a tendency for the scene to go on long after the point’s been made, and it messes up the flow of the play’s sweep through the road’s denizens. A set of steps from the stage down into the audience is presumably meant to replicate some of the interaction of the original promenade, but actors walk into the auditorium too rarely for it to really make an impact.

The second act is the stronger as it picks up the pace, and having wondered why Michelle Fairley was being so underused she comes into her own here, including one of the funniest scenes of the play as she attempts to seduce Noble’s catatonically drunk squaddie. Finally White, Marsay, Noble and Dan Parr take their characters on a double date that ends in an impromptu beat poetry session. Even more than Fairley’s impressive collection of lacquered wigs, Road’s tendency to overstate its point dates it firmly as an Eighties protest piece but it does have a lot more to offer than that; it’s flawed but Tiffany and his cast give it a powerhouse production that makes up for a lot of that.

Road by Jim Cartwright is booking until the 9th of September at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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