Glass reviews Road at the Royal Court, London

 

“Why’s the world so tough? It’s like walking through meat in high heels.”

IT’S been 31 years since Jim Cartwright’s seminal play, Road, was first staged by Simon Curtis as a promenade production, inviting audience members to take a walk down a beaten cobbled street of a fictional eighties Lancashire town. Through incredibly poetic and often unsettling language, Cartwright gives voice and expression to the inhabitants of said road and allows their individual stories to be heard.

Dan Parr (Brink) and Michelle Fairley (Helen,Marion,Brenda) 'Road' at the Royal Court - Photography credit - Johan Persson.Dan Parr (Brink) and Michelle Fairley (Helen, Marion,Brenda) Road at the Royal Court. Photograph: Johan Persson.

Years later, this play is still as poignant and relevant as ever, as London still reels from the traumatic events of Grenfell Tower, people continue to rely on food banks and many of those still face job cuts upon job cuts. John Tiffany whose past credits include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Once, brings outstanding direction and shrewd intuition to this revival. From the minute the production begins, you are transported into this downtrodden, angry world by characters packed so full of life and vivacity, they could almost jump out and smack you in the face with their shoulder pads and beer cans.

Faye Marsay (Louise,Clare) and Shane Zaza (Joey) 'Road' at the Royal Court - Photography credit - Johan Persson.Faye Marsay (Louise, Clare) and Shane Zaza (Joey) in Road at the Royal Court.- Photograph: Johan Persson.

Road follows the lives of various characters and switches between heart wrenching monologues and truly hilarious ensemble scenes. Some characters never meet, whilst others are interwoven intrinsically into each other’s narratives. Guiding the audience through this muddled group, is Scullery, played perfectly by Lemn Sissay. Scullery is the only character who really stops up being total voyeurs, as he addresses the audience and sets up scenes and characters in a charming, bumbling manner. We watch as the drunks come and go and learn more about the struggles of the Thatcher era for poverty stricken Northern towns, in a time of high unemployment.

Faye Marsay (Louise,Clare), Liz White (Carol,Valerie) and Lemn Sissay (Scullery) 'Road' at the Royal Court - Photography credit - Johan Persson.Faye Marsay (Louise,Clare), Liz White (Carol,Valerie) and Lemn Sissay (Scullery). Photograph: Johan Persson.

Tiffany wisely decides to keep this revival set in the time it was written, with garish costumes, questionably big hair styles and epic music, spanning Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness, all the way through to Elbow’s chilling song Lippy Kids, which include the famous lyrics, ‘Build a rocket boys.’ The chilling chords of this song suit the final scene so beautifully, in an unsettling climatic moment which incorporates the entire company.

Mike Noble (Eddie,Skin-Lad) 'Road' at the Royal Court - Photography credit - Johan Persson.Mike Noble (Eddie, Skin-Lad). Photograph: Johan Persson.

Chloe Lamford’s design is simple but extremely powerful, the most interesting and painful being the scene between bed bound Joey (Shane Zaza) and Clare (Faye Marsay). The bed is sat totally upright so we get the impression we are looking directly down on the couple as Clare tries to understand why Joey won’t move from this spot: ‘Are we protesting?’ she asks full of naivety and intrigue.

This is by far one of the most difficult scenes to watch, as the couple unromantically attempt to starve themselves to death in a disturbing suicide pact. You cannot tear your eyes away from Zaza and Marsay during their exchange, Marsay’s vulnerability and girlishness juxtaposed splendidly against Zaza’s determination and frustration with the world.

Other notable performances include Michelle Fairley, playing the desperate sex starved Helen, who brings a rather inebriated mute soldier back to her residence in an attempt to get him to seduce her; unsurprisingly to no avail. Fairley balances this uncomfortable yet for the most part, very comic scene so wonderfully as her character stings of loneliness and an incredible need to be loved. Once she realises she has pushed things too far and sees the soldier as just ‘like a little boy,’ and strokes his face, she is beside herself with remorse and anguish. Fairley masterfully documents this rollercoaster of emotions in this painful scene as it turns from farce to despair.

Michelle Fairley (Helen,Marion,Brenda) and Mark Hadfield (Jerry,Brian) 'Road' at the Royal Court - Photography credit - Johan Persson.Michelle Fairley (Helen, Marion, Brenda) and Mark Hadfield (Jerry, Brian).
Photograph: Johan Persson.

Though not as harassing and confrontational as the original, John Tiffany’s Road still certainly packs a punch and does justice to the lyrical genius that is Jim Cartwright. Moments of high drama, deep sadness and true hilarity all collide wonderfully in this epic revival. Well worth a watch, if only to be sadly reminded of the disheartened, divided nation we still live in, yet one that still has promise for hope and freedom in the future.

by Heather Doughty

Photography by Johan Persson

Road is at the Royal Court, London until September 9, 2017
Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, SW1W 8AS|
Box office: 020 7565 5000
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