Keen theatre-goers tend to begin describing a play by quickly outlining the main plotline and then hurriedly adding “but that’s not really what it’s about”. If you were to explain Jim Cartwright’s Road, you might get stuck at the first hurdle. The plot is a disarray of monologues, transition scenes and fourth walls being broken. Yet this cast and crew piece it all together to show us what the play is really about.
The directors Lucy Moss and Kaiti Soultana seem determined to convince us that Road is not another kitchen sink drama that inspired angst-ridden Morrissey lyrics à la Billy Liar. They are right, but I am not entirely persuaded by their method of execution. Bringing miming and non-naturalism to this depiction of 1980s Lancashire is rather bold, but it doesn’t work for every scene. The ensemble of mimes becomes an effective embodiment of the past that traps both Molly (Ellen McGrath) and Jerry (Alex Harris) in their monologues. But it is less powerful when used as little more than non-naturalistic stage filler, to make sure we are not bored by Skinlad’s rant (grippingly delivered by Jake Thompson). Sadly, some scenes lose their intimacy as a result. The directors need not worry; the actors are more than capable of retaining our full attention.
The cast of 10 deserves credit for portraying 26 characters without completely confusing me. This casting is a smart directorial move, as the actors become portrayals of emotions like frustration and despair instead of an embodiment of individual characters. The well-rehearsed northern accents are also spot on and bring authenticity to the show.
Furthermore, the actors manage to pull off the difficult balance between comic and tragic. With high energy they make the audience laugh in the short transition scenes, only to shut them up when the monologues become intense. This is especially well done in a sequence of scenes centered around the couple Joey and Clare, who give up all hope for the future and lock themselves inside on hunger strike. Joe Pitts and Caroline Heath-Taylor magnificently deliver these most intense moments of the play. The more comedic scenes also work well, despite some dated jokes (I don’t think anyone listens to Hot Chocolate anymore).
As previously mentioned, Road is a very intimate play where characters resort to addressing the audience when they fail to express their pleas to each other. Unfortunately, this intimacy can sometimes be lost due to the limits of the space. The constantly drunk narrator Scullery (Jonah Hauer-King) is ever-present upstage on his elevated ‘road’, bathing in red (one of the few uses of different lighting), but his function of (ironically) being the calm in a storm of near-insane inhabitants works best when he walks around in the audience and sits at the edge of the stage. In fact, some scenes are pushed to the back of the stage with no other effect than distancing the audience. However, I particularly enjoyed some of the little details like the cluttering of props as the play progresses. The filth enhanced the frustration.
Despite the 1980’s transition music (including The Cure, The Smiths and Talking Heads), this production does not get bogged down in trying to accurately depict a not-so-distant past that our generation never experienced. Rather, it is a well-performed portrayal of humans dealing with loss and their inability to connect. Whether they manage to connect with you remains to be seen.
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