Friday 7th September 2018 at Leeds Playhouse (Pop Up Theatre)
Jim Cartwright’s Road marks the first production to play in Leeds Playhouse’s Pop Up Theatre as well as the debut of their brand new Rep Company, directed here by Amy Leach. Going in knowing zilch but for the pitch, I think I was expecting something in the vein of Shameless, Bouncers or Junk at a push – real people with an array of life choices and circumstances to make us laugh and cringe in equal measure. Coming out, I think Road is more Trainspotting with the odd, gritty charm of Shameless and a little Clockwork Orange bitter lining. There’s plenty to laugh at, but there are a surprising amount of visceral scenes of suffering and devastation too and they are thrown into the comedy like hand grenades. Written in the late 80s, this is a politically reactive play which clearly has much to say about the way northern cities were left on the scrap heap by an uncaring Tory government and everyone else who let them be forgotten. At heart, this is a raging attack on the injustice of poverty in a first world country. Simultaneously, it’s about the virtues and vices of humanity, and within this demanding subject matter a brilliant cast are given ample opportunity to inspire amusement, shock and emotional connection. Road is essentially a series of monologues delivered by residents of an unnamed northern road. Playing alongside these monologues are various interactions between the residents, with all of the characters messily crashing into the scenes and stories of others. Hayley Grindle’s set is entirely in tune with this messy chaos – like a house ripped open, we have two levels indicating the various rooms in multiple buildings. Wallpaper is peeling, the visible loo promises no holds barred and the scaffolding reminds us that every character we see feels incomplete in some way. We are given glimpses of a wild cross-section of ordinary northern folk, from the young couple looking for release to the alcoholic mother with her disillusioned daughter trying to live the best partying years of her life with an equally skint friend. A mother lamenting a life lost to child-rearing and begging while her husband lives like an independent. Older women looking for a good time who are well up for trading a snog for cigs or a swig. A bickering marriage, step-sibling rivalry, a local ‘nut job’ to steer clear of and a lonely older woman about to commit a Clockwork Orange style sin. Living with this are those left isolated in a changing world – the older generation getting by with only their thoughts and memories to keep them company while the wails of entertainment or conflict pass by outside.Scullery is our narrator of sorts – played with an infinite pride and a knowing grin by Joe Alessi, this guy has seen it all – and been at the epicentre for most of it. He’s affectionate about the inhabitants of this road on which the whole play focuses, but he’s also completely honest about them. The truly great thing about Road, aside from its vicious social commentary, is the way it allows the ensemble cast to show such range. Elexi Walker is the one to impress most all round, hilariously capturing the free-spirit of the girl escaping life’s knocks with a night on the town, the failed daughter doing the best she can under the circumstances as well as portraying the underlying darkness masked so well by her brilliantly painted tough, fun-loving exterior. Susan Twist is hilarious as the potty-mouthed resident alcoholic who is owed everything by everyone whether they admit it or not, before taking on the quieter role of one of the more invisible residents on the road – a little old lady chuntering away to herself for want or another. Robert Pickavance gives us another sobering monologue as the elderly gentleman who just doesn’t understand this new world and longs for the past to come back – before returning as the drunk, self-serving single dad. Jo Mousley gives a great comic performance as the local scamp who’ll give herself up for a freebie but also gives a moving performance as the woman known now only as mother and mug. It’s not an unfamiliar narrative she shares with us, but it’s as melancholy as ever to listen to the impact of these strains on the individual. Darren Kuppan contributes a stunningly energetic performance as both the unstable local Skin Lad and the silent type. His monologue as the Skin Lad is searingly intense and it’s impressive to see Kuppan switch to the flip side as the uncertain guy on the town who finds release through music. Lladel Bryant is the only one to consistently play funny characters and gets his biggest laughs for the arguing husband and the paralytic drunk – both of which are excellently played while the latter provides one of those moments which lies on the boundary of comic and entirely uncomfortable in its rejection of all ethics. If the gender roles were switched, I’m sure an entirely different response would be felt by the audience, and that’s a fascinating element to this play in itself. Dan Parr’s performance signals the moment when Cartwright’s play really nosedives from voyeuristic comedy to something altogether more disturbing. Parr plays the troubled young lad undergoing a self-induced mortification in an attempt to find meaning in the world, dragging his girlfriend, played by Tessa Parr, along for his warped ride to discovery and release. Both give deeply dramatic performances to hammer home the consequences of leaving young people to fend for themselves through hard times; where there’s no real sign of hope or change, tragedy is sure to find its way there. The language shifts here too – from profanity-laden colloquial speech to a kind of poetry filled with existential agony. It’s a stark departure which either hinders any attempt to call this a comedy or else forces us to laugh harder at the comedy in its contrast with the tragedy. The only notable drawback of these glaring departures from the simplistic realism to intense drama is that they do sometimes drag on a little too long – Cartwright’s writing isn’t subtle and it punches on arrival, so there’s not much need or merit to overly-lengthy speeches.Road is certainly aptly named – it very much feels like a journey. It follows a long tradition of work which preaches about social responsibility and the duty we have to look after everyone in our society – a Shakespeare, a Dickens, a Swift or a Twain for the brave hearted. But it’s brutal in its depiction of the north – there’s no token close-knit, functioning family or unfortunate academic mind held back on this road by money woes only. There are no book worms or sweet little children to dilute the rough, tough characters on display and I think that might be the key flaw here. No one can deny the realism of these characters, however exaggerated they appear – and they do have their virtues highlighted for us, but the lives presented here don’t extend to all corners of those forced to live on forgotten roads like this… The humour often lies in the physical but also the language choices, which make colourful use of all the bad letters and associated naughty words in the alphabet – insults are without limit and profanity is a comma. But if you’re looking for pure rowdy comedy, this is probably a little too dark… If you’re looking for darkness and light interwoven by a skilled cast, and you’re not shy when it comes to the genuinely grim and the deviant, then Road will definitely fit the bill.
Road plays at the Leeds Playhouse Pop Up Theatre until September 29th 2018 and you can find tickets here.