First performed at the Royal Court in 1986, John Tiffany’s excellent revival does everything to elevate the poetry and pathos of Cartwright’s original text. It would be false to say that the play hits with the same potency, but Tiffany’s unwavering dedication, as well as some brilliant performances, distil the text as an excellent testament to a job-less and drenched Britain, crippled by the Thatcher era.
Scullery (played brilliantly by Lemn Sissay) the holy saint of an unnamed Lancashire town, guides us through a wild night of drinking, watching silently from alleys and roof-tops as we hear each resident’s story. Often monologues displayed in the Court’s glass box stage, like flies trapped in a glass, each character is indeed dying a slow death, suffocating and desperate to find an exit. They either accept captivity and stasis: an abusive husband, modern life that is so ugly compared with the past, or they find small mercies in the form of drink, the Dalai Lama and bare expressions of the soul, exemplified in the plays cathartic climax to the tune of Otis Redding’s ‘Try a little Tenderness’.
If Act 1 ends in defeat, a suicide pact in a bed, Act 2 picks us up beautifully as the locals spill out of the clubs in search of burgers and sex. A stark example of Cartwright’s haunting comedy, is when an older woman, again played wonderfully by Michelle Fairley, tries to seduce a soldier. After puking on her chips, he proceeds to pass out her floor while she tries to undress him. The hilarious seduction is cut short as she realises the soldier ‘is nothing more than a boy’ and as she quietly covers him in a blanket. We are reminded of news reels of body bags from the Falklands War. Without the usual moral brow-beating often seen in modern social commentaries, Road invitees us to witness laughter and desperation, pain and existence that simply is, without the need to resolve the impossible injustices of modern life.
John Tiffany’s revival could be criticised for not moving forward. Important anthems of the 80’s, (New Order, Soft Cell) have become today’s Kiss FM hits, and similarly Cartwright’s characters and his sentiments too familiar after the films of Shane Meadows and Simon Beaufoy. But by staying true to Simon Curtis’s original production Tiffany has made the right choice, an honest testament to an important period in our history and, although different in form, resonant of today’s landscape of austerity. Political parallels are not drawn but instead we ask ourselves: how do we depict struggling societies in the theatre these days? And do we do it enough?
- Written by Jim Cartwright
- Directed by John Tiffany
- Cast: Michelle Fairley, Mark Hadfield, Faye Marsay, Mike Noble, Dan Parr, Lemn Sissay, June Watson, Liz White, Shane Zaza
- Royal Court, London
- Until 9 September 2017
- Review by Max Wilkinson
- 16 August 2017