There is a real beauty in Road, a witty but heartfelt and powerfully political play from Jim Cartwright that lays out the desperate hopes and crushed disappointment of working-class lives in the North of England, whose communities had been robbed of purpose and potential by the Thatcher government and its polices.
Set in the 1980s, we follow the inhabitants of an anonymous street in a working-class area in Lancashire across a single night. The set-up is terrific but the writing and its message does struggle to take flight in this really quite leaden revival helmed by Director John Tiffany.
It’s the evening, and as we pry into the living rooms and kitchens up and down the street, we meet various men and women getting ready to head out for a night on the tiles, or those dolling themselves up though they’ve nowhere to go but their own front room where they’ll pass the night reminiscing on happier memories from their past.
We’re led through these scenes by Lemn Sissay as a narrator (Scullery), and for all the humour in watching the streetwise women swindle horny, eager men out of their alcohol, and seeing many partner up if only for the night, there are also moments of real angst, such as the daughter compelled to give her alcoholic mother a fiver, a single father’s attempts to woo a woman to bed scuppered by the appearance of his young daughter, and an older man alone at home wishing courtship was as elegant as it was in the days of his youth.
It’s a succession of scenes, of insights. Some outrageously funny, but many tinged with sadness. You are rooting for Road all the way through because there’s so much to explore here but, frankly, this production is just way too static. It is crying out for movement. It craves an injection of energy for its spirit is too often sapped by the staid direction.
Since its debut back in 1986, Road is often shown in promenade. Perfect. But here, I suppose logistics as well as choice prompted John Tiffany to try something new, to take a different angle, rather than replicate the same. Well, OK. But the result is that the writing is almost crippled by the production’s sluggishness – The narrator comes on, gives a few words, walks off and a new scene comes in. That plays out, narrator comes back on again, tries to convey that we are moving on, then he disappears back into the shadows and a dirty box rises out of the stage and a scene plays out in that with the actors like exhibits in a vitrine, before that too disappears back into the floor, the Narrator returns and he segues us into the next scene… And so it goes on.
This lack of dynamism drags the show down, robs it of vitality. And it isn’t helped by a questionable production design from Chloe Lamford (who is usually so wonderful) where the stage has been stripped back to just a bare brick wall and a few street lamps to, you know, convey a road. Only the acoustics are dire and voices are occasionally lost, disappearing up into the rafters of the empty stage. I was in the stalls and I was still struggling to hear a few of the lines.
It’s so frustrating because there is so much here to love. The writing and the production is anchored firmly in the 1980s, with its shoulder pads, Human League soundtrack and Bullseye references. It infuses the show with a glorious but cleverly pointed nostalgic feel for, of course, this ain’t a poverty of opportunity that remains a relic from the past. Its bite comes from the fact that we know this remains a truth desperately relevant today – and likely to become more so as this country teeters on the brink of a full-force post-Brexit recession.
So, for all the comedy and the wit – and the truly excellent drunk acting from across the cast – Jim Cartwright grabs the opportunity to reveal moments and scenes of quiet desperation, from the lonely wife increasingly resentful of her fat, obsolescent husband, to the young couple starving themselves from a combination of boredom and protest, all with nods to the role alcohol and casual sex plays in numbing its players from pain.
Simply, Jim Cartwright’s beautiful writing isn’t showcased at its best. That’s not to say though the unspoken anguish of these frustrated lives doesn’t hit home. The strongest hit comes, rightfully, at the climax when it’s laid out how much those we’ve spent voyeuristically observing are simply doing anything to escape the Road they’re stuck on, just searching for an exit, a high, if only for one night, that can obliterate them to the mediocrity of their reality.
It’s a moment that really punches you right in the solar plexus. But the hit unquestionably comes from the writing and the excellent acting, and in spite of the cumbersome production rather than because of it. Such an opportunity missed to exalt this wonderful writing. I took away enough from this show to say I enjoyed it but, oh, what I would have given for a different approach to the source material.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to September 9th, 2017
All production images by Johan Persson.