Road – Royal Court Theatre, London

Writer: Jim Cartwright
Director: John Tiffany
Reviewer: Tom Finch

Set among the houses of an unnamed street somewhere in Lancashire during the Thatcher years, Jim Cartwright’s seminal play Road is now playing at the Royal Court 30 years after its first production. Eschewing plot for character study the piece explores the lives of the working class inhabitants over the course of one night.


Cartwright’s play was arguably seen as groundbreaking in its day. Giving an unflinching look at the lives of an incredibly deprived group of people in with great humour and humanity. Three decades later though and the piece does feel a little dated, the fact it takes place in the 80s notwithstanding. The scenes begin to feel formulaic after a while. They tend to start funny and then slowly descend into darker territory. This can be an extremely effective structure but after a while, it loses its edge. You can find yourself waiting for the sudden revelation instead of being carried along by the story.

That said there are some great moments. A scene involving an older woman, played by an excellent Michelle Fairley, who, desperate for some male attention, has pulled a young soldier who is so paralytic he is unable to do much more than sitting passed out in an armchair. The fact she keeps on trying even after he’s thrown up on his chips is as moving as it is sad.

June Watson is superb as the lonely June, sat in her kitchen making herself a cup of tea, complete with milk from the cat’s saucer, while getting ready for a night on the town.

As dated as the structure may feel, the content of the play is still relevant today. With food banks and poverty in the news so often it’s become commonplace the fact that so little has changed is presented as a stark, unforgivable reality. The play shines in the moments of absolute desperation. A character who is refusing to get out of bed or even eat is gut-wrenchingly sad and difficult to watch.

A scene in which four young people are failing to cop off with each other after a night out turns into a rallying cry against the lack of opportunities for young people without hope of anything better could easily be from today although now they might be accused of being ‘entitled millennials’.

The cast is complemented by Gareth Fry’s excellent sound design which combines 80s hits with dark, looming noises that creep up on the audience enveloping the scenes in eerie hues of sound. Lee Curran’s lighting also subtly changes, mirroring the changes in mood and tone. It’s Chloe Lamford’s set which doesn’t hit quite the right notes. A realistic street design greets the audience upon entering the audience but a large, perspex box rising from the ground in which the characters sit, feels obtrusive and out of place in this gritty character piece.

There is a lot to like about this piece but, at two and a half hours, it does start to drag, the urgency slowly falls away. It’s thanks to the strange, moving ending that it picks up before the curtain call. There’s much to enjoy here and the mirror it holds up to the world we live in now cannot be ignored.

Runs until 9 September 2017 | Image: Johan Persson

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Humour and humanity

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. 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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