Road is a play loaded with despair and ecstasy. Brimming with disco and ballet and country and soul, it transcends its opening character profiles and monologues to become a slaying inditement of the pressures of life under conservatism and a celebration of the release the era’s music brings. This production is at its best when it lets the music rip through the bodies on stage and its characters aren’t even speaking anymore but showing us the release of anger and honesty they’ve buried. Breathing. Feeling. A concluding movement section uniting the residents of our road – any downtrodden, down and out road – is electric.
Originally staged in promenade, Road is a classic of the late 80s by Jim Cartwright set on an unnamed road in Lancashire. Revived for the Royal Court Downstairs, directed by John Tiffany, it premiered at the Court in 1986. Given the aggravation of its characters suffering through poverty, their lives stripped of meaning through unemployment and low pay, and their nostalgia for memories of a glorious past full of purpose and fulfilment, its programming feels almost too prescient. Listed before Brexit, May, the snap election and the reinvigoration of commitment to true socialism, Road was chosen as a great play from the Court’s history. Today it feels like a kick in the teeth to present authority.
Enough history. It’s not just that – its context now and its context then – that makes this show feel so present. It’s relatable. Even if every universal moment is made to mean something about the situation. The chippy running out of all the good stuff is a humorous comment on things running out. But the monologue of an older man, suited up, dreaming of a time when he’d go to dances and be carefree – that’s all of us, right? Two girls, two boys, prepping for a night out. On the search for “something different”. You’ve been there. A young man and his girlfriend, in bed, trying to find a transcendent meaning for their lives, could be anyone’s conversation with someone close to them. What happens to us next? What’s out there? What do our lives mean? Why are we here?
There are moments that could be cleaner in the blocking and the diction is at times muffled. I wanted the movement sections of anarchic disco to crescendo and break out much before they did. In the first half they are too brief to capture the joy of the music in all its rich eighties glory. The red brick set design by Chloe Lamford with a glass/mirrored box that rises from the pit is good at capturing the changes in scene and the continuity of the road as our setting. But the box with its echo chamber effect was claustrophobic and distracting for the monologues inside it behind closed doors. The costumes, though, are on point.
We could have felt the community of the road better – via the roaming narrator (played by the excellent Lemn Sissay) – a sound design that captured more fully the noises of the street – and fewer monologues uninterrupted by others on stage. There are times that the transition of the episodes in the first half is stilted even if the content is arresting.
This is a play of brutal honesty about poverty and the despair of life on the edge threaded with lucid humour, the best drunk acting I’ve seen probably ever, and much fabulous Eighties style.
I should note that I saw Road during previews. It runs till 9 September at the Royal Court Downstairs. I can only imagine it will get even better. Thanks Royal Court for the social media call and opportunity to take some snaps.