Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review Road

by Jim Cartwright

Northern Soul

By 1986 the era of the bomb sites left by the Second World War and subsequent demolition was retreating but not forgotten.

This often revealed on city wastelands a cross section of a home in the rented Victorian terraces which still had tenants in the houses next door. Torn wallpaper and homely cupboards up above still visible to children playing down below in the ruins.

The North/South divide had descended and the old industrial revolution industries were either rapidly contracting or had already died a death. The Big Bang and the bank account culture were yet to take over but there were glimpses of the changes they would wreak.

This, it seems to us, is the atmosphere of Jim Cartwright's Road - dilapidation, unemployment where joining the armed forces and almost a war enconomy seemed the only alternatives, a new generation springing up out of the ruins of the old and, yes, an indominitable stereotypical humour and resilence.

Having only read the play and never seen a production, we were excited when Road came up on the schedule of the Royal Court - its original home - directed by John Tiffany to boot.

Road is a mix of communal poetry, soap opera (Coronation Street, Brookside and even Eastenders had all become popular), rage at social circumstances and an exploration of inner psychic space and society. 

We have to say we were a little surprised by a set from Chloe Lamford with a pair of monolithic streetlights towering on each side of the stage and an extremely clean red brick wall with bricked up huge arched windows as the backdrop.

This all seemed more like something out of expressionist Metropolis than a Lancashire town in the 1980s under a Thatcher government.

And instead of us travelling up and down the road with a  febrile Scullery, it's a production made static by the curious choice of a rising and lowering perspex cube giving a feeling of aliens who had just landed on Planet Lancashire.

Up the wide steps at the front of the stage, our guide, Scullery, is a very laid back Lemn Sissay, poet and actor, who takes his time to lean back and watch the action as it plays out before him.

This is not  a pulsating, changing street or a ghetto where people are trapped. It's a far more sterile environment where everybody takes their turn.

You may guess from this TLT found the Lancashire street via Sloane Square particularly lacking in atmosphere. Sometimes this view of a Northern town even felt theme park-like and kitsch rather than a hand-to-mouth existence of a street full of people  regularly cashing the unemployment benefit Giro at the Post Office.

Still, while they have to sometimes fight against some unwieldy design for the intimate scenes, there are good performances. Mark Hadfield as a Hoover-mending resident, leather-skirted Michelle Fairley propping up a passive binge-drinking soldier she's determined will give her a good time and June Watson's understated but pitch perfect turn as a girlish pensioner.  

Written by Jim Cartwright three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Road is a map not so much of a sea change but a new era's tidal wave. It still remains an atmospheric piece of writing with beautiful, visceral use of music.

However we don't feel the overall concept of this production goes with the flow of the poetic text. It just doesn't feel raw red and wounded  enough - as if it were all behind an airless perspex box with the politics and soul sucked out. It's an amber light.

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