Bad times make for good drama. Good drama makes
people think. Great theatre can have the power to educate and change opinion,
and can take its own place in history for which it is rightly remembered and
celebrated. As is the case with Jim Cartwright’s look under the bonnet of the
shiny Ford Capri of Britain’s society in the mid-eighties,
Whilst I am now glad of my childhood for making me who I am today – that in no way means I want to go through it again.
Unfortunately this may be the elephant in the room here as it feels wrong to criticise something now for what it was then. There is still relevance to Cartwright’s bleakly matt black, ‘Northern Humour’ rooted uncovering of parts of society many of us pretend don't exist. But whilst there is recognition that there are still those who struggle through day to day now – as there were in the 1980s outwardly-facing prosperous Britain of Road – the structure, the style and the performances may leave you feeling this would be a fantastic production to watch… but only if you were watching it thirty years ago.
It just feels very old-fashioned and, as such, it is very comfortable. From the moment Lemn Sissay’s Scullery shuffles onto the stage and takes his place as the only one who talks to the audience, explaining what “‘t’road is”, and the ‘characters’ we might see as we walk down it together, we laugh at his curly 80s perm, puffa jacket and the way he slightly wobbles his head as he punctuates little gags and swigs endlessly from a half bottle. ’Cos he’s a cheeky chappy this guy. He’s probably got a heart of gold. Yes, so he might be a single, lonely man in his forties with little hope or prospects who has resigned himself to the challenge of existing and who reaches to alcohol as a means to block out any of that harsh reality…
… but let’s not let that ruin our night. Let’s just laugh at the silly little things he says. Ooh, look he’s going to do some 80s dancing now – I loved Human League…
And that pretty much sums up the next two and a half hours. Through Chloe Lamford’s very impressive design – which seamlessly creates different homes, parts of the street, and even a chippy from the minimal of prop movement done by the actors themselves to a whole glass cell looking box that raises up and down centre stage – we see what goes on ‘behind the curtains’ of the residents of Road pre, during and post a ‘typical night out’. The bully… who has a secret you may not expect… The funny old lady… who actually might be losing her mind... The Mother and Daughter… who actually may not really be as different as they think they are… It’s not that these people don’t exist or their situations aren't real – there’s just little surprise or even depth to the characters and as such feels a little patronising in the context of things we know today.
There's nothing bad here, and if you were to mark it on a tick-list of ‘how to make theatre’, it would likely do well. An array of characters that cover generations and backgrounds? Tick. A combination of theatrical styles – including comedy, pathos, verse, monologue and music – to break the pace and maintain attention? Tick. A ‘shocking’ revelation that comes out at the end of most vignettes (well, maybe not that ‘shocking’ – see above). Of course – it’s Cartwright. Oh, and an ending that doesn't really resolve anything but has no need for subtitles to make you realise this is your “take home and debate” moment. You betcha.
And yet… and yet… it feels more like a class on the subject than it does an actual piece of theatre to enjoy in and of itself. I praise the existence of this piece and am sure that many actors today may owe their first break to auditioning using one of the many self-contained scenes that cover the range of emotions they call on you to display. But whilst I am now glad of my childhood for making me who I am today – that in no way means I want to go through it again. If you have memories of the play that are important to you and you want this to be a way to revisit them, then go see – it’ll be fine. Otherwise, find an episode of Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff – debate parallels with the class divide today, use the word ‘seminal’ a lot but secretly just laugh at the accents and quote “Gissa job’ like it’s a punchline rather than a comment on society. Whichever is your choice, the outcome is pretty much the same.