Well, the cast are superb, John Tiffany’s directing clever and polished, the set designs interesting, and it was an Olivier award winner 30 years ago. Yet watching Road at The Royal Court yesterday left me strangely empty and certainly depressed. I think it was a combination of the fact that it isn’t an especially good play, but a series of clever vignettes about life on a namless dead-end Northern Road, with no hope at the end of it, everyone’s road, along with wondering why the self-proclaimed writer’s theatre have chosen to revive it. When, if ground is really to be broken on Northern divides, inequality, food trolleys or the state of the Nation, we need bold new work on anything from Brexit, to Terrorism or Grenfell Tower.
Bits of Road are really excellent, both in acting and staging, notably June Watson as Molly trying to keep up morale in the face of death, and everything else, or Michelle Fairley as the blousey broad trying to woe an astoundingly pissed squaddie. One she poignantly realises is just a boy, used and abandoned by his country. Throughout the emptiness of British culture, or the eternal power of cheap tunes, is highlighted by a great use of sound, giving us anything from Country and Western to snippets of the darts favourite with the crap prizes, Bullseye. Something that goes on far too long. The excellent narrator’s dance with a shopping trolley to the sound of the dying bird in Swan Lake strikes a very powerful metaphor about the divides at every level today, and the longing of all too, to be somehow ennobled or transported.
But considering Road was written at the height of Thatcher’s Britain, yet fails to find any narrative direction that really makes it a play, or actually to have an especially powerful political voice either, I was left feeling not only that this was the end of the road, but it was no wonder everyone sold out back then. Indeed, I started wishing that the ingeneous set design of a reappearing Perspex box to highlight the isolation, but which actually muffles the actors and cuts you off from some really tremendous performances, would morph into the Game show The Cube, not only for the entertainment value, but the potential prizes too.
But when you give no one any real hope, at least in the struggle, there can be no plot trajectory, no jeopardy and no real resolution. Perhaps that is half the point, which is why Mike Noble’s excellent frustrated skinhead turns to Buddhism, and, whether it’s in the original play or not, the director ends the show with the cast suddenly breaking into orchestrated Tai Chi. Their only escape, into some healing dance of life along the way.
I’m all for Tai Chi, it really helps, and the author Jim Cartwright has the voice of a poet, that often takes flight in his monologues. Yet they are only that really, and with the bristling one liners, become a kind of literary and stagified showing off. But if Road is an investigation into some transforming power of Art, it doesn’t quite convince, or if a philosophical journey into the ultimate hopelessness of the human condition, bring back Becket. In fact it’s trying to be too many things. The full audience liked it, and it does have its great moments, with some impressive stand-up bed acting. But frankly, if we’re going to get metaphysical too, I’d rather a bit of Jack Kerouac, and a blast of On the Road, then get on my bike.
David Clement-Davies saw Road courtesy of the Royal Court Theatre. Road runs until September 9th. For tickets Click Here