The Royal Court
28 July 2017
There are two things that age you, children and theatre. Both can make you feel old. I saw the original touring production of Road, now marking its 30th anniversary with a new production at the Royal Court. It was staged promenade, I never knew theatre could be done like that, it blew my mind. Ian Dury played narrator Scullery, and he shook my hand and sang to one of my friends in the interval. Jane Horricks and cast weaved their way through us, and a senior audience member sat in the armchair on set, and the actors just performed around her. Unforgettable to me, then a student.
Director John Tiffany does away with promenade in this staging, the set thrusting out to the auditorium and revealing a sort of glass lift that some of the monologues and smaller scenes take place in. We are taken through an evening in a road up North, and time has dated some of the material, and some performances edge dangerously close to caricature. As Scullery, Lem Sissay appears as a stereotype of the Northern comic, and I felt he could have engaged with the audience even more. However, this is a fine ensemble and there are many highlights. These include the wonderful June Watson as Molly, getting ready for night out at the pub, Liz White haunting as battered wife Valerie, and Mark Hadfield’s poignant Jerry, yearning for the past that he remembers through rose tinted glasses. Best of all is a hilarious and moving scene, with Michelle Farley superb as Helen, trying desperately to seduce a pissed up and vomiting soldier, she even uses chips, “on a plate”, to tempt him, then realises how young and broken he is.
Since the play was first staged there have been a whole raft of working class writers and art that reflect Cartwright’s influence, including Lee Hall, (there is a nod to Billy Elliot when Scullery performs a ballet with a shopping trolley), Shameless, Gary Owen and a raft of Channel Four documentaries of benefit claimers. I wondered if the material should have been fully updated, but it remains fixed in a 1980s hinterland. Staging monologues and scenes in the glass box makes them look like museum pieces, and that doesn’t help the dated feel.
But there was one thing I had forgotten. It was always there, I had just forgotten it. And that’s how brilliant a writer Cartwright is. His script reached out over the years and slapped me about the face, a hymn to working class people and poverty. The final scene, in which four young people perform a unique ritual, is powerful and moving. Eddie, Brink, Carol and Louise, (Mike Noble, Dan Parr, Liz White and Faye Marsay-all excellent), get pissed and play Try A Little Tenderness by Otis Redding, and then scream out their frustrations, a cathartic release from their despair. It is one of the most brilliant scenes written for the British stage, and the climax, when they scream “Somehow a somehow a somehow- might escape”, over and over tears your heart out. Except here, Tiffany adds a totally pointless Tai Chi movement sequence that involves the whole cast and totally undermines the power of the chant, softening the blow. The play needs to speak for itself, and too often here the direction and movement undermine the text. However if you’re new to the play, catch Cartwright’s masterpiece, and join me in yearning for a sequel.