Jim Cartwright
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Production photo

Noreen Kershaw directs Jim Cartwright's first play Road at the Octagon in Bolton, another play with local links for the theatre's 40th anniversary season.

In a run-down northern town with high unemployment in Thatcher's Britain (there were plenty to choose from), Scullery, between knocking back the rum and chatting up the girls, takes us on a trip down his road and introduces us to the people who live there and stories from their lives.

There is no real storyline to Road, and it does not even seem to have as solid a structure as Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, with which it is often compared. Seven actors play over thirty parts, with only Scullery as the consistent thread running through the whole play. Some of the characters we visit and re-visit as they pass along the road, and some we call in on to witness a whole story from their lives.

There are some very good performances from this mostly-local cast of actors. While some characters seem a little overplayed for comic effect, this is never true of those played by Joanna Higson, a former youth theatre member at the Octagon, who always manages to make her characters believable and her dialogue natural, despite the sometimes-awkward mixture of colloquial speech and poetic rhythms in Cartwright's writing. The same can be said for the always-excellent Paul Simpson. John Henshaw holds everything together well as our guide and narrator Scullery, and there are some very good performances from the rest of the actors: Antony Bessick, Eve Robertson, Julie Riley and the playwright's son James Cartwright.

Apart from a rather clumsy opening moment, director Noreen Kershaw keeps a good pace and a coherent delivery throughout the play. The comedy is usually excellently put across and there are some nice serious moments as well, but there are times in the play when it is easy to get fed up of the characters sitting around moaning about their lot.

Designer Dawn Allsop has built a convincing road through the middle of the in-the-round theatre configuration, and there is a row of very different house windows high on the wall that is usually the back wall of the stage. The scattering of rubbish and old furniture in the road when the audience comes in is moved around and used to create the scenes.

This all adds up to a rather uneven night with some superb highlights and some parts that get a little tedious, but this could be as much to do with the unevenness of the source material as the production itself. Overall, the Octagon has done a decent job with a play that, as the balcony showed even on press night, still attracts a lot of young people, particularly young drama students.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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