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Road by Jim Cartwright
Published on Monday, 13 May 2013

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4 stars

Academy of Creative Training (venue website)
3-4, 7-10, 15-17, 22-24, 29-31 May, 7:30pm-10:00pm; 11, 18, 25 May, 1 Jun, 2:00pm-4:30pm, 7:30pm-10:00pm; 12, 19, 26 May, 5:00pm-7:30pm
Reviewed by Darren Taffinder

 Warning: Contains strong language.
 Suitable for age 16+ only.

After what feels like weeks of watching-hour long Fringe shows, I wanted to see something longer, sprawling… epic even. At two-and-a-half hours plus, Road by Jim Cartwright (also known for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice) is certainly longer, maybe a bit too long. It’s ambitious and challenging, and a deeply political piece of theatre. I’m not exactly sure if I enjoyed it, but I was riveted by parts of it, and angered by others. Some of it was so bleak I wanted to run out and phone the Samaritans. I certainly wasn’t bored.

First produced in 1986, Road is about a street in a Lancashire town with two pubs at one end and a slagheap at the other. It certainly doesn’t make you want to time-travel back to the north of England during the height of Thatcherism, that’s for sure. Given Thatcher’s death a few weeks ago, the timing couldn’t be more apt.

Director Julian Kerridge doesn’t flinch away from some of the play’s harder aspects, and the cast is amazing moving between multiple, varied roles. It’s also a very immersive play; as you come into the theatre you’re confronted by several of the characters. The play itself is done in the round, or in the “rectangle” if you want to be technically correct, with the actors performing in the centre of the theatre and seats on every side. The eight-strong cast flits through the play’s different characters as our narrator Scullery, an impressive Martin Jenkins, takes us on a tour of his road and the different people who live on it.

For me one of the standout moments came towards the end of the first half, when we meet Joey and Clare. Joey, played by Sean Williams, has spent a week in bed refusing to eat, and his girlfriend Clare (Kate Adler) decides to join him on his protest diet. This is Road at its darkest and most tragic, and as their protest drags on, I just wanted to shout “eat a sandwich, everything will be all right”. I had to almost stuff my fist in my mouth to stop myself. 

The second half lingers a little bit, and there are moments when you just want to see just the smallest chink of light. Even its relatively jollier parts are undercut by a deep fatalism. However, I loved Jim Cartwright’s use of language throughout, the lyricism of it. The way he combined words was just fantastic, and it had some great moments of pathos.

I was a little concerned at the start that the play would feel dated. I was a teenager in the eighties, but more towards the hopeful end of the decade (I was into the Stone Roses rather than The Smiths). But instead I found it quite relevant for Cameron’s austerity Britain. In fact, afterwards, I was stuck by how small theatre has become. Where are today’s protest plays? Are we afraid to offend anyone? One thing about Road, it’s not afraid to offend.

Road is a demanding play, and at the end I felt slightly bludgeoned by it. I was reviewing another show afterwards, and had to stop on the way for a cake and think of my happy place. It was perhaps ten minutes too long and could certainly do with a bit of tightening; but it’s a big, big chunk of theatre, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

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