A hymn to working class people and poverty is provided by Jim Cartwright in his provocative expressionistic play, Road (Royal Court Jerwood Theatre), which blazes just as angrily some 30 years after its debut in John Tiffany’s stripped back revival.
There is no strong storyline. Instead we are lead through a typical recession-hit Lancastrian town on a typical Saturday night in 1986 in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, as its inhabitants drink their worries away for a short time, young men and women find temporary relief in meaningless sex, alcoholics scrabble for a few quid for a can and chippies hawk their wares come closing time. But instead of being led on a nocturnal journey, we are treated to a series of vignettes. There’s Brenda (Michelle Fairley), a withered alcoholic in a grey tracksuit, reduced to begging her daughter for money. There’s Jerry (Mark Hadfield), a lonely gay man tortured by his rose-tinted memories of a long lost love. There’s Valerie (Liz White), forced to “sniffle out” money like a “bony rat” because her unemployed husband spends the giro down the pub. There’s Joey (Shane Zaza) taking to his bed for a hunger strike protest at the hopelessness of life. There’s tottering Doreen and Lane, dressed up like birds in fluorescent orange and turquoise feathers. And through all of them, wanders our guide, the thieving, slippery Scullery (Lemn Sissay), with a glint in his eye and a quart of rum in his hand.
What saves this gruelling, uneven play from becoming a complete wallow in misery is the muscular vitality of Cartwright’s writing. His unholy, poetic vernacular lends a visceral charge to his characters yearning for a better life as we watch the brash public face of the ‘community’ masking a different mood underneath: desolate, angry and vulnerable. Furthermore the drama is tempered by a strong vein of biting humour – Helen (Michelle Fairley again), desperately trying to seduce an inebriated semi-conscious soldier, even resorting to chips “on a plate” to tempt him, and then realising how young and broken he is and scullery performing a whizzing rapturous pas de deux with a supermarket trolley to the strains of Swan Lake.
The production is staged against the background of a bricked-up wall, while designer Chloe Lamford has a Perspex cabin that rises and falls intermittently centre stage, representing various rooms but more resembling nothing so much as a secular confessional.
This then is an uncompromising piece, full of pent-up energy and excellently performed by a hard working ensemble cast, giving it a documentary feel, punctured by bursts of 80s music. The final scene in which four young people perform a unique ritual is powerful and moving. Eddie (Mike Noble), Brink (Dan Parr), Carol (Liz White) and Louise (Faye Marsay) get drunk and play Try A Little Tenderness by Otis Redding, and then scream out their frustrations, a cathartic release from their despair and longing to be free from a dead-end existence.
A Road to nowhere, then, but one you will not forget in a hurry!
Playing at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre until 9 September 2017Last modified: April 6, 2021