Road

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Faye Marsay, Liz White and Lemn Sissay © Johan Persson

Road by Jim Cartwright, Royal Court Theatre, London

The Royal Court is not known for reviving its own history, so the decision to restage Jim Cartwright’s Road, a triumph when premiered here in 1986, is very deliberate. Thirty years on, we are invited to confront what has changed and what has not since a generation on from the heights of Northern post-industrial decay. Inevitably, the issues of joblessness and hopelessness at the heart of Road seem highly relevant to the 2010s. It may be about zero hours contracts rather than jobs in open cast mines, but still the same as it ever was. It is more of a surprise, perhaps, that Cartwright’s writing still seems so fresh – mesmerising and confrontational – and the staging as inventive as it must have done at the height of the Thatcherite 1980s.

A picaresque romp through the front rooms, street corners and chips shops of an unnamed road in an unnamed Lancashire town, Road is a series of interconnected vignettes. These range from the riotous to the staggering bleak. The audience is given a guided tour by ringmaster Scullery, a street-dwelling, rum-swilling carnivalesque presence who not only observes but takes part, indulging in the occasional burglary and the odd knee trembler. He is played by poet Lemn Sissay, who follows the tradition of casting an occasional actor in a part originally played by Ian Dury. His linking scenes catch just the right level of leery conspiracy, as he dives into living rooms as the inhabitants of the Road get ready to go out for the night.

At first these scenes appear conventional – a mother and daughter arguing over the ironing board, a man reminiscing about better times – stock scenarios from kitchen sink drama. But there is something more direct, more brutal and more strange about the way characters behave, and what they have to say. Carol asks her alcoholic mother, “Are you still going with that ragman?” Jerry talks about being “poor, no good, no use”. A skinhead delivers a hallucinogenic monologue on his dharmic conversion from street fighting. Life on the Road is dictated by industrial collapse, unemployment and lack of prospects. The first half culminates with Clare (Faye Marsay) and Joey (Shane Zaza) sharing a bed and a hunger strike in a heart-rending, beautifully written scene, so jaw-droppingly grim that a noticeable section of the audience did not return after the interval. They made a very poor choice.

Road is both richly written and gloriously unpredictable. It is as though John Cooper Clarke’s post-punk state of the nation song, ‘Beasley Street’, had come to life and rampaged through the theatre, disgorging characters right, left and centre. Saturday night hook-ups become scenes of intense, shared despair and flash front collapses as the drink takes hold. Scenes are so tightly written that not a word seems superfluous. Somehow a balance is maintained between themes of deep social decay and the human warmth of a town out and about.

Road includes an array of fantastic parts, but the key is in the ensemble. John Tiffany directs a fine cast, who expertly double up across roles. Faye Marsay and Liz White play frustrated young women, Michelle Fairley desperate middle-aged ones, Mark Hadfield the desperate and drunk, Mike Noble loners, Dan Parr a man looking for escape, June Watson old women singing older songs, and Shane Zaza the unforgettable Joey, attempting to leave this terrible world. If that sounds like a tough evening’s theatre, it is anything. The quality of Cartwright’s writing is such that it is impossible to look away, as perfectly crafted scenes follow one after another. The Royal Court has revived Road because, thirty years on, there is still nothing like it. John Tiffany’s production updates the play to make its time period clear to a modern audience. Although now a play about the past, it still speaks to us in an urgent, foul-mouthed, irresistible tones.