When Jim Cartwright’s Road, a biting acerbic portrait of an unnamed Lancastrian community decimated by unemployment and Thatcherism was first staged in the Royal Court Theatre back in 1986 there were three million people unemployed. Whilst currently unemployment quivers at 1.49 million, it doesn’t take a communist fanatic to draw some parallels between the grim situation faced by the ragged unfortunates who scrape by on the eponymous unnamed Road (unnamed because someone stole half the street sign) and the thousands of disenfranchised poor who have fallen through the cracks created by austerity policies and the ugly underbelly of globalisation.
The original production was a promenade performance featuring Blockheads’ lead singer Ian Dury as Road’s Junkyard Puck figure Scullery who lead the audience physically down the road of the title and was, by all accounts, a scorching revelation. Director John Tiffany (who recently directed the almost absurdly successful Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) has opted for a more traditional approach and the results might not be quite so epochal, but Cartwright’s play still packs some jagged teeth and Tiffany and a talented cast know exactly how to sink them into an audience’s throat.
Framed as taking place over the course of a single night (with a couple of exceptions like a couple’s presumably days long suicide by hunger strike, a shattering set-piece which closes the first half) Road careens through the hours with frenzied ebullience. Cartwright is more interested in dark humour than darkness for its own sake and (minus the aforementioned suicide) the vignettes that make up the play have a grotesque comic energy to them; aps the various characters desperately scramble for alcohol and casual sex in an attempt to beat back the brutal reality of daily life. Considering Chelsea’s ascension from rich to stupendously unthinkably rich over the thirty odd years since the play’s debut, a certain uncomfortable atmosphere of being on a poverty safari runs through the well-heeled audience; a feeling that is intensified by a series of vignettes and monologues that take place in a glass box which rises from the floor (the stage is otherwise minimalist, just bare brick walls and the halved street sign which gives the play its name) which feels uncomfortably close to a fish tank or even a cage. These digressions include some of the best scenes in the play such as Michelle Fairley’s (who takes multiple roles and is great in all of them) failed seduction of a catatonically drunk soldier or a skinhead’s paen to the joys of what A Clockwork Orange dubbed “the old ultraviolence” and the minimal staging of the box helps hone the jagged edges of Cartwright’s commentary into razor sharpness.
With all this in mind, it’s Scullery who proves one of the play’s few disappointments as his direct address to the audience, presumably punky and necessary when staged promenade style, comes across as hammy and forced to a seated audience. Other than that though, whilst the production fully commits to its eighties setting (shoulder pads and all) its urgency and anger feels right at home in the age of austerity. Whilst it’s tempting to grumble about rehashing old plays and concerns rather than writing new ones, the burning anger at the heart of Road is sadly just as relevant now as it was then.
Royal Court Theatre
Running Time: 150 minutes including interval
Playing until September 9th