DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Road – Northern Stage, Newcastle

Reviewer: Mark Clegg

Writer: Jim Cartwright

Director: Natalie Ibu

As a summation of the feelings of a massive portion of the UK population back in 1986, Road is damn near perfect. More specifically, Road zeros in on a street in a Northern town to explore the effect of Thatcher’s Britain on an area which seemed to be almost cut off from the rest of the country. Road is an angry reaction to the unemployment and lack of empathy that the government showed. Road is a microcosm of the frustration, helplessness and fury that festered among the working class at the time. Road is a scathing criticism of how the world had turned sour as the rich got richer by standing on the poor. But also Road can be seen as a celebration of the simple joys in life. Whether it’s a night out at the pub, a bag of chips, or a quick snog, Road seems to encourage us to enjoy what we can in life, while also damning the futility of it all.

Road is a complex piece and Northern Stage should be commended for not only presenting it, but for putting on such a lavish production that really impresses with its scale. Amelia Jane Hankin’s multilevel set portrays nearly a dozen different living areas including some living rooms, bedrooms, a kitchen, a backyard and even a toilet, and while it is amazingly detailed and intricate, it always complements the action and never overshadows the players.

The set is particularly effective for a piece that envelops and involves the audience, and the added bonus of Northern Stage’s big auditorium having a full-width stage means that one is placed right in the middle of the action. This is aided by the play’s narrator/Greek chorus Scullery (an absolutely superb MIchael Hodgson) who directly addresses the audience with asides, jokes, observations and pleas for light for his “tab”. It’s with Scullery as well as some of the many vignettes within Road that writer Jim Cartwright hammers home the drama – by juxtaposing it with comedy. Yes, this production of Road is extremely funny. Many of the scenes that begin as broad comedy sketches do slowly slip into tragedy, but isn’t that life? Doesn’t that make the sweet things sweeter?

Northern Stage has made the canny decision to transport Road to a neighbourhood more local to them. With minimal tweaks to the script, the story and themes are now effectively presented by Geordies who had as tough a time under Margaret Thatcher as the Lancastrians from the original script.

The cast of ten portray multiple characters and for the most part are excellent. Such a small cast playing such a large range of characters does sometime cause confusion with an occasional lack of clarity as to whether they are playing the same character or a different one, and although every performer gives it everything they’ve got, some are slightly more effective as others. Rohit Gokani is spellbinding in a small monologue about how badly the world has changed from when he was young and Phillip Harrison is hilarious in all of his roles, particularly DJ Bisto who comes out and entertains the audience for the entire duration of the interval. Ruby Crepin-Glyne is a young talent to keep an eye on, as is Nicole Sawyerr – both portraying various aged girls and women with believability beyond their years.

Natalie Ibu’s direction is tight and always interesting, using the large set and various parts of the auditorium to their full advantage. Zoe Spurr’s lighting design is so good that it makes what must have been a very complex job look extremely easy, and Jon McLeod’s sound design brilliantly adds to the illusion that the audience is sitting in the middle of the road.

Road is not an easy piece to sit through, and at nearly three hours with interval, it sometimes feels a little overstuffed. However this production successfully brings back the rage and frustrations of Northern England in the Thatcher Years and manages to make them relevant 35 years later, while also being funny, warm and welcoming. Well, this is Newcastle after all.

Runs until 30th October 2021

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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