Review: Road, Royal Court

“We all felt special but safe at the same time”

As somebody who grew up on the outskirts of a depressed Lancashire town in the 1980s, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Royal Court’s revival of Jim Cartwright’s seminal debut play Road. I was only seven when the play was written (1986) and truth be told, we were far enough out of town to be on the right side of the road but still, there was a definite sense of intrigue to my anticipation.

Safe to say, the play did not reveal any biographical insight into the early life of Clowns (or anyone he went to school tbqh) but nor did it emerge as a revival with much to say to Britain today. This portrait of a society scarred by Thatcherite intervention remains very much that, contemporary allusions to a society once again divided and depressed remain unexplored, frustratingly so.

For the collection of sketches that make up Road remain firmly located in the 80s, something exacerbated by over-emphatic wigs and costuming that border on the parodic (although I do remember the madness that was shell-suit season). The downtrodden Valerie bemoaning her unemployed husband tendency to blow the week’s budget down the pub, hunger strikers without a purpose, dementia sufferers left to fend for themselves, so much of society locking themselves away from the harshness of the outside world – plus ça change and all that…

John Tiffany wasn’t the first director that came to mind when thinking about this play and his normally sure touch feels like it has gone a little awry here. There’s brilliant use of music and movement to be sure but staging that doesn’t work too (the audience stuff made me cringe) as the monologues that pepper the sketches beat us over the head with their brutal emotional honesty through a glass box that appears in the middle of the stage (those glass boxes didn’t make it to Wigan I’ll tell you that much).

Tiffany seems to be reaching for a lyricism that isn’t always there, and often undermines the scabrous humour that is there, resulting in a heavy-handedness that left me a tad underwhelmed. What saves the day – almost – is a cast full of extraordinary talent – the luminescent Liz White, the ferociously charismatic Michelle Fairley, a poignant pairing of Shane Zaza and Faye Marsay, June Watson and Mark Hadfield finding heartbreaking quiet moments. It’s grim up north and all told, it is grim watching it.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 9th September

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