Road was Farnworth-born, Jim Cartwright’s first play. Written during a time of much social tension, it was first performed back in 1986 at The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.
The play shines a brutally honest light on the microcosm of an unnamed road in Northern England. A road that might well have existed at the time in Cartwright’s native Bolton. Or North Tyneside. Or in East Leeds. If you spent the 1980s fox hunting, driving your VW Golf around Sloane Square and wintering in Courchevel, you might think this Road is an exaggerated fiction, used as a vehicle to illustrate the ‘goings-on’ of that notorious Tory construct: The Non-Working Class. Everyone else will recognise it as disconcertingly real.
Almost 40 years after Cartwright produced this seminal work, watching director Natalie Ibu’s reimagined version (in its current run at Northern Stage) might well leave audiences questioning why the subject matter is as pertinent today as it was when Mrs T and her U.S. chum were bombing Libya, and Madonna was pleading ‘Papa Don’t Preach’.
Ibu has tapped into and understood the hopes and needs of returning North East theatre audiences with this production. This road is truly anchored on Tyneside. Each member of the 10-person inhabits numerous roles and does so magnificently. Our ‘Sunset – to Sunrise’ tour guide is Scullery, an incredibly perceptive down-and-out played by Michael Hodgson. Scullery introduces the audience to his fellow residents, who can reach out and communicate in such a way that emotions ranging from severe discomfort to all-enveloping warmth permeate stage one.
Northern Stage describes the production thus: ‘Protest, poetry, lust and grit. A vibrant, funny and moving show celebrating community and the incredible resilience of the human spirit.’ I would also add ‘visceral’ to any description. While the subject matter is unfortunately much too familiar, there is something about this production which succeeds at jabbing at deep-seated emotions.
Ryan Nolan’s Skin Lad is one of many notable performances. His apparent turning-away from extreme violence, in favour of the Dharma, provides a welcome moment of humour. Nicole Sawyerr as a downtrodden wife, stealing herself for the return of a drunken husband, is heart-rending and marks her out as one of the most exciting and able actors of the moment.
Phillip Harrison, who, as a Teesside man, must be struggling with having to work on Tyneside, is superb in his role as The Prof. But possibly his greatest achievement to date is as his alter ego, DJ Bisto, who had the cast and audience boogying like it was 1999 during the interval.
The set design, created by Amelia Jane Hankin and team, is a real triumph and perfectly highlights the disparate but enmeshed lives that exist side by side, yet remain behind closed doors. The intensity of Ike Bennett and Ruby Crepin and Glyne’s descent into bedroom hopelessness was presented in such a brutally honest way that, as Scullery found, there are times when words fail us.
Our narrator keeps his feet firmly on the ground as he explains: “And just remember folks, if God did make them little green apples, he also made snot.” But for four young people (with Otis Redding as support) who end the night on the road, despite the hurdles and disappointments that are part of their everyday, they show us that escape and hope cannot be crushed. As long as we have access to chips and booze.
Road is at Northern Stage until October 30, 2021 and is a highly recommended piece of theatre from an arts organisation which is consistently at the forefront of encouraging us all to examine our own role within a ‘bigger picture’.
Road is at Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne until October 30, 2021. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.