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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Road
Royal Court Theatre  Summer 2017

It may be that Jim Cartwright's 1986 drama has not aged well, or it may be that John Tiffany's over-gimmicky staging gets in its way too much – perhaps a bit of each. But far too little of the power that made this a modern classic comes through in this disjointed and uninvolving production.

Cartwright's text is a collection of independent short scenes, snapshots of some of the residents of a downmarket street in a northern town in the darkest days of Thatcherism. With only a couple of exceptions no two scenes relate to each other, and most characters are met once and never again. 

Generally unemployed or under-employed, the locals cope with their dead-end lives in predictable ways. The young people go out to get drunk and/or laid, while the older generation sit at home and yearn for the past (One of the play's few resonant lines: 'Can we not have before again?') 

Originally staged as a promenade, with the audience led from one home to the next, it is here, in Chloe Lamford's design, onstage, with most of the homes represented by a room-sized transparent box that rises out of the floor to allow someone within to speak his or her piece before disappearing under the stage again. 

The device is presumably meant to suggest the characters' trapped lives and the audience's voyeuristic intrusion, but it mainly shouts 'Oh what a clever designer am I'. 

The play's structure evokes comparison to Under Milk Wood, but Cartwright lacks Thomas's poetic power and ability to create an evocative sense of time and place. 

Its focus on the working and non-working class suggests Berkoff's East and other plays, but without the obscenity raised to Shakespearean heights that invigorates Berkoff's prose and gives his characters a not-entirely-mock heroic quality. 

Neither the playwright nor the director fully individualise or give reality to most of the characters. 

Yes, the lonely old man is unhappy, and so is the abused housewife. But we've never seen them before and will never see them again (and the actors will double and triple in other roles), and so we can't get too involved. 

Yes, there is a desperation to the young people's determined debauchery, but they're all so alike that you may have trouble telling them apart. 

There are a couple of resonant scenes. Shane Zaza plays a lad so depressed by his life that he retires to his bed and stops eating, hoping that starvation will induce a mystic comprehension. 

Where he fails, four of the drunken lads and lasses will listen in silence to Otis Redding's Try A Little Tenderness and achieve an emotional breakthrough that enables them to face and verbalise their deep unhappiness. 

There's an equally-funny-and-pathetic scene in which Michelle Fairley plays an older woman trying desperately to seduce a young soldier who is comatose with drink, and a sequence in which Lemn Sissay as the narrator/tour guide pauses to dance with a supermarket trolley to the strains of Swan Lake, a moment that is as lovely as it is unrelated to anything else in the show. 

With no real sense of time and place, or of community, the overall impression you are likely to get from this revival is of a string of audition pieces, monologues of instant characterisation and instant passion, but so complete in themselves that they remain disconnected from each other or anything else.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Road - Royal Court Theatre 2017  


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