Road begins with the crescendo of Judy Garland’s enduring song of hope and desperation: “birds fly over the rainbow, why then oh why can’t I.” This sense of escapism and desire for a better life predominates throughout Jim Cartwright’s gritty yet lyrical portrait of economic hardship.
Set in Lancashire at the height of Thatcher’s Britain, Road gives us an insight into the lives of the residents of an undefined road over the course of one night. It debuted at the Royal Court in 1986 to great acclaim. Bringing it back now to austerity Britain is an unusual move for a theatre that celebrates new writing and rarely revives plays. But it works. If you look beyond the shoulder pads, elaborate hairstyles and 80s hits, the depth of disenchantment resonates today. In fact director John Tiffany (of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fame) cites this stagnancy as a key driver for the revival “It was written from a place where it didn’t feel like it could get any worse…and actually it’s got worse for people.”
But for all the frank despair – “fucking long life in’it” is a common refrain – the lyricism of the writing and the pervasive music conflate to affirm a latent sense of hope and striving for better – not accepting that this is ‘it’. In one particularly potent moment, the drunken narrator Scullery (Lemn Sissay) takes a shopping trolley as his dancing partner to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Although the 80s dance routines between scenes sometimes lacked crescendo, music is used skillfully throughout the play, bringing a sense of denouement at the end of the piece. A cringingly awkward drunken double-date was revolutionized by the playing of the entirety of Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ as though this was all that was needed to lessen the burden of trying times.
Chloe Lamford’s design adds to this sense of isolation in the characters’ lives – they are delivered up through the floor to tell their story in a grungy glass box; a display-case prison acting as an echo chamber for their thoughts. Sometimes moments of overly chummy audience interaction detract from this voyeuristic feeling. The original production’s promenade format would have lent itself better to this attempt at interactive theatre but as it stands I would have preferred that the seclusion be maintained.
Faye Marsay and Shane Zaza are convincing and arresting as Joey and Clare – a couple on a suicidal hunger strike, portraying the innate human desire for more than “work, work, small wages, Death”. They emphatically admonish our trepidation in confronting this: being “frightened to sniff the wind for fear it’ll blow your brain upside down.” The detail of Mark Hadfield’s performance is captivating in his portrayal of a lonely man evoking his earlier life when there “were so many jobs”. Game of Thrones’ fans will be unsurprised by Michelle Fairley’s incredible abilities, showcased best through her tragic portrait of Brenda, the withered alcoholic scrounging for a pound from her daughter and the poignantly hilarious Helen seducing a paralytic soldier who proceeds to unceremoniously vomit into a plate of chips.
Road is an outstanding fusion of excellent poetry, movement and humour which, together, offer a portrait of life beset by escapism and economic difficulty. If the transitions between vignettes seem clunky at times this can be primarily put down to their juxtaposition with the depth of emotion conveyed as each individual character tells their story. It is a formidable play which sharply portrays the struggles of ordinary people as accurately now as it did when it was first written. I can only hope that its bleak relevance diminishes over time.
Road, Royal Court, London, until 19 September.