Image Credit: Anna Bunch
Jim Cartwright’s first play, Road (1986), follows the impoverished residents of an unspecified Lancashire road as they conduct their everyday lives. The play addresses the representation of the working class, both by the mockery of traditional sources of public knowledge – as is seen by the social scientist (Seb Vaughan) who attempts to inveigle himself with the residents – and in portraying the characters naturally using everyday situations and colloquial speech. Road, however, also refers to the endless journey each character undertakes to try to find resolution and purpose in their lives – as the audience, we never see beyond this road; just as the characters never actually find their resolution.
The decision to stage a play set in and written after several years of a Thatcher government clearly plays to the times, with Boris Johnson’s newly-elected government continuing the Conservative reign that is now nearly a decade old. With the precarious state of the world, for students watching, the existential doubt that plagues the characters is not too great a stretch of the imagination. Road is not light-hearted, with frequent swearing, references to domestic violence and suicide. Each character finds their own coping strategy – whether in alcohol, sex, imagined murder, or simply in narrating the events of Road, as eclectic “tour guide” Scullery (Will Goodwin) does with glee and poignance.
Whilst a subtext of poverty ensures that the outlook for Road’s residents is bleak, we witness humour in the snapshots of their lives that are put to us, as each tries to distract themselves from an underlying sense of doom. There was some powerful acting from the student cast of this production. The stand-out performance came from Liv Maltby as Joey, who provided a harrowing portrayal of desperation in a person driven to breaking point. The quartet (Izzy Baxter, Dom Rice, Lucy Finnighan, Alex Buckley) who enliven a final scene where alcohol inspires impassioned monologues, as each character acknowledges their personal unhappiness, approached this with zeal, humour and hope.
It was brilliant to see the dynamics of female friendship so poignantly and intelligently explored in Road, especially in the run-up to International Women’s Day. While not ignorant of the sexist attitudes of its era, Road emphasised relationships where women supported and understood each other, with realistic interactions between mother and daughter, and between young friends.
The production team did an excellent job bringing the setting to life. This community is a collection of scrap-heaps dotted with people, emphasising the state of poverty such a community would have experienced in real life. A graffiti-painted wall and tips of rubbish everywhere evoked a dismal atmosphere that was as bleak as the lives of the characters. Choosing to maintain this for indoor scenes emphasised the idea that the literal waste was an apt counterpart to the figurative waste – of human lives – as reflected upon by the characters themselves. Musical choices made the setting more realistic, relating the community to the world beyond their road through contemporary pop culture. The producers also did a good job evoking the road through sound effects, with passing cars and other forms of transport included.
Comedic sections met with rapturous laughter, whilst more emotionally charged moments held the audience in a trance-like state of silence. Unfortunately, distinctions between characters became unclear at times through the doubling of actors for different roles. Adding to the confusion was the way in which the play had no traditional sense of plot; however, the meandering nature of the play accurately put across the meaninglessness of living felt by the characters. Though difficult to witness at times, Road had plenty to be experienced as the audience was almost treated as members of the community. Ending on a note of hope – “somehow, I’ll escape!” – the play invites us to view this 80s Lancashire community in more than one lens, as a place where people were not ignorant of their lot; struggling to cope, and yet struggling on, laughing along the ‘road’.