Writer: Jim Cartwright
Director: Amy Leach
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
It’s back to its roots for the Leeds Playhouse. While The Quarry and Courtyard theatres are closed for redevelopment for several months, the theatre is renamed from The West Yorkshire Playhouse to its original title of Leeds Playhouse and a new, repertory company of actors have been assembled – standard in regional theatre 30 years ago, but now a rarity. The company will perform several plays over the next few months and the season begins with Jim Cartwright’s 1986 piece, Road.
Converted from the workshop/scenery store of the theatre, the temporary pop-up space already has the smell of manual labour as you walk in through the dock doors. The workers must have the space clear by 6pm, ready for a quick transformation into a front of house theatre space. The necessary industrial feel of the place, therefore, may not have been an artistic choice but certainly complements Cartwright’s guttural and raw play. Road can be any road in the north of England suffering abject poverty. Written at the height of Thatcher’s reign, it became a visceral and brutal response to the forgotten north – seemingly left in squalor. Written from scraps of monologue and short, unconnected scenes it is a play of unusual form but of animalistic quality. It is a beast that needs to be attacked head-on with no apology – and that is what director Amy Leach presents.
The cast burst onto the stage from the outset, confidence oozing. The ensemble of nine is sensational, as actors both individually and as a collective. For the last 30 years, snippets of Road have been the staple diet for actors in drama school audition rooms. Each character we meet are big, bold and, in some cases grotesque caricatures. The words Cartwright places in their mouths do not lie in naturalism. Everything seems ‘heightened’ and although set on a run-down anywheres-ville road, the piece has an almost dreamlike, otherworldly quality to it – very much complemented by Mark Melville’s subtle score under monologues and key moments.
Our narrator, or perhaps tour guide, of the road and its inhabitants is Scullery (Joe Alessi). “All life is dumped on this road.” he tells us. “Fuckin’ long life innit?” A terrifying incarnation, Alessi ‘s Scullery seems to hold whatever power there may be amongst the filth and grime. Alessi is tremendous but to single him out would be an injustice to the ensemble as a whole. Susan Twist plays the grotesque, sex-crazed and foul-mouthed Helen pouncing on anything and everyone she can get her legs around. But the tenderest part of the piece is her monologue as the elderly Molly who we meet all too briefly – a snapshot, a glimpse into a character that quickly melts back into the ‘road’.
With the exception of our guide all of the actors multi-role. Jo Mousley, Tessa Parr and Elexi Walker have enormous fun as girls out on the town on a Friday night wanting drink, dancing and chips on the way home. Robert Pickavance transforms between an eccentric Professor to a drunken Dad caught almost pants down by his daughter when he brings Helen home. Darren Kuppan and Dan Parr lurch between characters on the edge of desperation, to Brink and Eddie – two lads desperate to pull Carol and Louise. And mixing between Scullery’s right-hand man, Blowpipe, Lladel Bryant also becomes our interval entertainment in the form of DJ Bisto!
Hayley Grindle’s long set, that of a terraced road, allows the actors bags of room to play. But that doesn’t stop them from lurching out into the audience and around the seats – fitting to the production’s head on style approach. In an inspired piece of accessibility, the production uses an old 1980s British Telecom phone box on the corner of the stage to audio describe the action. And this isn’t done by an employed audio describer, rather by the available ‘offstage’ actor, still in character, lifting the receiver in the booth and describing the onstage visuals to any audience member requiring assistance through the supplied headphones. It is, quite simply, a piece of genius thinking.
Road is not a play that is likeable. It is an uncomfortable, hard watch without much drive of narrative plot. It becomes about being immersed into the pitiless world presented. But this production rewards us for engaging with it. Cartwright’s words allow actors to flex their acting muscles to the max. Leach’s direction is as in-your-face as Cartwright will have intended and this is an exceptional acting ensemble that is going to be very exciting to watch over the next few months.