Jim Cartwright’s seminal play gets a timely revival at the Royal Court where it first premiered over thirty years ago. Its meaty scenes make it a favourite for drama school productions and its monologues frequent the audition circuit. It’s therefore exciting to see it back where it began with such a talented cast under the direction of John Tiffany.
Over the course of a Friday night we follow the residents of an unnamed road in a Lancashire town at the height of Thatcher. Unemployment, repression and poverty rule. Lashings of booze and grubby sex is the coping mechanism of choice. It’s grim, at times gruelling, sad and of course the modern day parallels are obvious. These people are the forgotten, the overlooked, the ignored and the irony of watching their suffering for entertainment from the safety and privilege of my Royal Court seat isn’t wasted.
However, something is a bit off. Despite the modern day parallels, the then and the now don’t successfully meet. Watching the squalor and clawing desperation feels voyeuristic and unpleasant – Liz White’s brilliantly acted yet brutal monologue as Valerie is a case in point.
Most striking is the script – profanities that would make a sailor blush go side by side with a lyricism and imagery that is both beautiful and surreal. Cartwright gives his characters a turn of phrase which transcends their seedy surroundings suggesting something more hopeful.
The cast throw everything they have at the production, even a little too much. The play is a series of separate vignettes hosted by Scullery (Lemn Sissay) our resident MC for the evening. Sissay gives him plenty of colour and a penetrating stare but the attempts at audience interaction fall flat. However, his dance with a shopping trolley to the sounds of Swan Lake is a highlight. Shane Zaza as the chronically depressed Joey embarking on a hunger strike is very affecting. Michelle Fairley gives a hilarious yet tragic turn as Helen whose attempts at seducing a wasted soldier is as funny as it is heart breaking.
There is much to admire in this bold revival both in acting and direction. However, the treatment of all that depression, rage and desperation seem to repel rather than draw you in.
Road runs at the Royal Court until 9 September. Call the box office on 020 7565 5000.
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Words by Matthew Hyde