Road review: Protest play about the neglected working-class is as relevant as ever ★★★

The Royal Court has revived Jim Cartwright's influential play set in a northern town in the Thatcher years - and it still packs a punch

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In 1986 it was very much a Road less travelled. Jim Cartwright’s drama of that year gave voice to the abandoned working-class in a way that few contemporary playwrights attempted, and certainly not in such daring form – a pageant of prose-poetry that encapsulated the north of England’s anger and despair at what Thatcherism was doing to it.

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More than 30 years on, does Road still have any mileage in it? John Tiffany’s shouty, visceral, uncompromising revival at the Royal Court makes a powerful case but while we are recognisably back in 1986 – hairstyle-wise we’re talking Toyah Wilcox and Sheena Easton – it goes beyond politics and into the realm of the human condition itself. Lost souls are everywhere you look.

To that extent Road is timeless, even as we know that real-life solutions to the issues confronting the play’s characters were possible back in the 1980s, just as they are possible today. In the age of austerity and ongoing social inequality, the children of Road are very much with us. But politics – and society – continues to fail them, which is why returning to the play is amply justified.

Stylistically, the production leaps about. Naturalism one minute, absurdism the next. There are dance elements, and the action is punctuated with bursts of 80s music (and one highly significant 60s hit). Scenes that could have come straight out of Samuel Beckett vie with moments we recognise from TV dramas like Shameless, whose debt to Road was considerable. Chuck in powerful echoes of both Greek tragedy and Alan Bennett and it’s quite a mix, occasionally a muddle.

We’re in an unnamed northern town – the characters’ accents range from Scouse to Geordie – and the action unfolds over the course of one night. Lemn Sissay’s Scullery narrates proceedings like a Greek chorus as the lives of the dozen or so characters collide. They drink, they fight, they get it on (or not), and they stare into the abyss.

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Lemn Sissay as Scullery in Road

It’s a brutal environment in which great damage has been inflicted on people, and there are moments of gross humour that only desperation on this scale can give rise to. Something pretty disgusting happens during an attempted seduction in which one party is catatonic with booze. Don’t make any assumptions about which party it is. 

More a series of individual scenes than a coherent narrative – many played out inside a giant transparent cube that speaks of people facing glass walls as well as ceilings – the production is blessed with a fine ensemble cast of whom Faye Marsay, Liz White and Mike Noble would be my pick.

But Road is a “statement” play. We are given only glimpses of individual lives but its message comes at us with a vengeance. 


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