Review: Road at The Royal Court

Full disclosure: I’d never heard of Road before I saw it go up on the Royal Court site. I’d never even heard of Jim Cartwright (soz Jim). When I saw the revival this week in Sloane Square I went with close to zero knowledge of what the play is about, the kind of affect it had on audiences when it was first performed, and what kind of reception it was getting critically this time around. I was left to my own devices, and as a result it was perhaps all the more powerful. 

Here’s what I knew five minutes in: we’re on a road in the north and it’s the 80s. Streetlights line the stage, and you just can’t mistake the era’s particularities of fashion. Shoulders are padded, hair is be-mulleted, and belts are as wide as the River Croal. Little bursts of the songs of the decade erupt and fade out. But the 80s weren’t just about big hair and even bigger tunes, Thatcher made sure of that. Deindustrialisation has taken hold and there are no jobs and no money. It’s all too familiar. Had director John Tiffany chosen to set the play in 2017, I would have assumed that it was new writing. Let’s face it, what’s so different now? Austerity has the nation in a chokehold, and the chasm between rich and poor has only widened. 

Where we’re left to make the connection between 80s and 2017 Britain ourselves, elsewhere we’re given a little more help. Indeed, we have a guide. Lemn Sissay’s Scullery is our master of ceremonies cum one-man Greek chorus, slipping like a rat through the cracks in the fourth wall, beckoning us into the kaleidoscopic world of ‘road’ with one swig of his bottle for an audience member, and another for a fellow resident who knows him by name. Through Scullery we’re invited into the lives of the road’s inhabitants through a series of interlocking vignettes. Scene by scene, individual characters live out the minutiae of their lives, made sadder and smaller by poverty. It’s night, and so most are going out, seeking oblivion. In booze they can escape, at least for a bit.

This pervasive sense of entrapment is aided by Chloe Lamford’s stage design. Every now and again a large glass case rises ominously out of the centre of the stage, each time containing a different character. It looks like a prison cell, or a cage. It’s a neat device that prevents an abundance of clunky scene changes, and is undoubtedly successful in representing the oppressive confines of a life disabled by lack. But it also seems to invite the audience to engagein a kind of voyeurism, almost as if we’re all gathered to watch animals in a zoo. Given the general affluence of the audience at the Royal Court, which itself is a stone’s throw from the luxe of the King’s Road, the set-up cuts pretty close to the bone. 

The sharpest cuts of all, though, are dealt by the performers. Michelle Fairley is both devastatingly funny and just plain devastating in a turn as a woman trying to seduce a nearly-unconscious younger man, navigating piles of fish and chips and vomit in her attempts to feel wanted. Mike Noble as Skin-Lad is a coiled spring, turning from a life of closing-time violence to the peace of the Buddhist dharma. In one particularly distressing vignette, Shane Zaza as Joey is as starved of hope as he is of food as he hunger strikes to try to transcend the pain of his reality. 

Relief and release comes in the final scene, as if from nowhere. Two guys have brought two girls back to theirs after a night out, and decide to show them ‘something different’. They slam through a bottle of wine in seconds, and put Otis Redding’s ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ on the record player. The four of them stand side by side, eyes closed, and listen. As the music crescendoes they seem to grow with it, to rise up. Just for a moment, they find their oblivion, and all the hairs on my arms stand on end. ‘Somehow a somehow I might escape,’ says one of the four, repeating it until it becomes a chant, which the rest of the cast join in unison. 

As the realism of the play falls away in these final moments, and each character moves together in a semi-dance, they achieve what Joey had been trying for: transcendence. It’s a deeply moving sequence, made all the more poignant by the very fact of our watching it in 2017 in the knowledge that if anything things have worsened. Nonetheless their cautious optimism bleeds out into the room, and although we know that in the years that follow it doesn’t get better, it’s enough to hold on to the hope that maybe it could.

Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond

Photo credit: Sarah Weal