BWW Review: ROAD, Royal Court
Thirty years on from its birth at the Royal Court, Jim Cartwright's northern, working-class battle cry returns in a revival from John Tiffany which, though initially stodgy, has an accumulative and undeniable force.
The 1986 play follows the residents of a Lancastrian road for one night, winding its way through their poverty-stricken neighbourhood and peeking into their homes. The original production was a famously immersive promenade affair, but - other than Lemn Sissay's Scullery occasionally addressing audience members - Tiffany's version is more bracingly theatrical.
The series of loosely linked vinyettes are told in short scenes and monologues, some of which have the inescapable feel of a meaty acting exercise, but together they form a powerful tapestry of deprivation in Thatcherite Britain. Of course, the grim contemporary parallels are all too obvious: 30 years on, and the inequality chasm grows. "England's in pieces" indeed.
Despair runs through all these lives. Perhaps most vividly in those of teenagers Joey and Clare, who, jobless, hopeless and stripped of all opportunities, lie in bed starving themselves. As they slip into delirium, a piercing, accusatory wisdom emerges. "Life can't just be this, can it?"
Tiffany assembles a community of isolated individuals, of fractured connections and agony hidden away. Chloe Lamford's filthy glass box rises from the depths, a museum display case-like prison for the trapped and forgotten. Specimens Jerry and Molly both feels alienated from the present, but their shared loneliness doesn't bond them. Proximity does not equal relief.
The brazen counter to this crippling solitude is booze, sex, chips, singing, dancing, anything to feel, flee, regain control. Yet it's often illusory or temporary, an inadequate armour - just as several characters climb a ladder that leads nowhere.
It's a bleakness that could become numbing, but Cartwright's text is full of earthy poetry, mordant wit and remarkable moments. Of the latter, no one who sees it will be able to shake the memory of four lost souls, finding an extraordinary transcendence in Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness".
Tiffany's production is particularly strong in its understanding of how music can be escape and illumination, from the playing of a gramophone to a giddy burst of Country and Western line dancing. Most evocative is Scullery, who finds an abandoned music box playing Swan Lake, twirling in a dreamlike pas de deux with his shopping trolley.
It's grimily visceral, too, with a seriously gross-out post-vomit snog, sticky spilled drinks and a child's face streaked with blood. And there's competition for the Adrian Mole musical in the Eighties style department - eye-watering fashions and towering 'dos.
The outstanding Michelle Fairley parades one of the latter, and is superb in her different guises: from a withered alcoholic harassing her daughter for money to the frisky Helen trying to build a sexual fantasy by pretending a soldier at the paralytic stage of drunkenness is merely enigmatic. It's a riotously funny scene that edges into searingly tragic.
Excellent, too are Mark Hadfield as Jerry, conjuring his happier past; Liz White as Valerie, waiting up for a husband spending their cash down the pub, and Carol, who taps into a rage at their circumstances she can't quite explain; June Watson as Molly, painting on her face as she loses sight of her late husband's; Shane Zaza and Faye Marsay (with Fairley, adding an incentive for Game of Thrones fans), tremulously facing the end; and Sissay as a charismatic but coyly calculating guide.
Lee Curran's lighting is a combination of shifting gloom and queasy strip lighting, while Jonathan Watkins' movement grounds the piece and then contributes to a beautiful climax, as those gulfs - between young and old, male and female, neighbours blinkered by their hopelessness - are bridged for just one moment.
Photo credit: Johan Persson