Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
While it is unlikely the theatre knew this when this play was programmed, Jim Cartwright's portrait of a run-down street in a Northern town in Thatcher's Britain of the 1980s is revived by the Coliseum just as a new Prime Minister who is said to model herself on our first female PM has entered Downing Street.
And, although there are some laughs—and the press night audience seemed eager to laugh as much as possible whenever they were given the chance—it's a pretty bleak portrait overall. While there is, to an extent, a sense of community on this nameless road, it is infused with hopelessness, which those who live here have to learn to live with or they find themselves falling into despair. It is clearly influenced by the 'kitchen sink' drama of the 1950s and '60s, some more obvious references being the ironing board from Look Back in Anger and the combative mother-daughter single-parent relationship of A Taste of Honey—which Cartwright returned to for Little Voice.
Our guide on this street is Scullery, a morally dubious ex-sailor who introduces the audience to his neighbours and their stories, played by Richard J Fletcher, better known to Oldham audiences as the regular panto comic for years and more recently the panto dame. While some companies have staged this as a promenade production with Scullery physically leading the audience from one house to the next, Foxton's impressive set design crams together suggestions of both indoor and outdoor elements of the Road all jumbled up to form a backdrop to all of the scenes.
Most of the other members of this nine-strong cast play multiple characters, and there are some strong characterisations from them all to differentiate them nicely. Many of the scenes in act one are rather sketchy and pass by seemingly insignificantly, at least in this staging, as various people get ready to go out, or stay in.
The first act ends with the first extended scene, which is the bleakest of all. Joey (John Askew), finding himself out of work, takes to his bed and refuses to eat. His girlfriend Clare (Alyce Liburd), who has also just lost her "nice little office job" (she doesn't say how), comes to ask why he is doing this, to bring him to his senses, but she ends up joining him. No spoilers on the outcome, but it isn't the most uplifting note on which to send the audience out for the interval.
The second half, while not exactly hopeful, never descends into quite that level of bleak despair, and in fact does end with a scene where four young people who have met on a night out (Zoe Iqbal, Alyce Liburd, Kofi Dennis and John Askew) find a spiritual escape, if not a physical one, through the music of Otis Redding—and a lot of wine. Along the way, there are scenes which I suppose could be described as sadly comic, such as the middle-aged woman (Claire Storey) who persists in trying to seduce a soldier (John Askew) she has brought home who is already unconscious through drink before noticing how young he looks, or the Professor (William Travis) who records people on the street on a cassette recorder.
The language is Cartwright's usual Northern colloquial speech turned lyrical with lots of repetition, which can be a little awkward sounding if not delivered correctly, but the actors here cope well with it. Other very effective characters are created by Shaban Dar and Paula Lane. There is a soundtrack of '80s hits linking scenes, although sometimes this gets in the way rather than creating a smooth transition.
Although it appeared in the National Theatre's One Hundred Plays of the Century in 2000, Road isn't revived professionally as often as some of his other plays and it exhibits the rawness of a first play, in both good and bad ways. There are some impressive performances and certainly some lighter moments, but the comedy is sometimes pushed a bit too hard to overcome the bleakness inherent in the play. Oldham audiences looking for a fun night out may not find this entirely satisfactory, but I did overhear one woman on leaving the theatre say, "it picked up in the second half."
Reviewer: David Chadderton