Why did the Northerner cross the road?
TO GET A DECENT FECKING PART IN A PLAY.
Jim Cartwright’s Road holds an almost mythic place in the pantheon of modern classics. It is so often cited as an example of the Royal Court firing on all cylinders, messing with form and content, transforming the theatre physically and metaphorically. Some of my favourite northern actors have been influenced by it – Maxine Peake recalls it being the first play she read at school and was able to recognise herself.
I only knew it by reputation. I’d never read it, never seen it. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to this year. Ultimately, it wasn’t what I expected.
It’s a series of vignettes, and soliloquies. Snatches of conversation and speeches are heard, as we hurtle down this unnamed road in sort-of Bolton (Brothel on wheels. Peake knows what’s up,) and all this is emceed by the aimless Scullery (Lemn Sissay,) a man with a deep affection for the people living on this road. Characters are barely characters, they are voices. They are individuals, but also a “whole kind of person,” as Kushner might say. It’s like ‘Not I’ but with social context. They call out into the dark, not for help, but just to be heard. You can certainly see how this was so arresting in promenade.
Inevitably, some bits work better than others, and most of the best bits are in the second act. I did find myself wishing that someone had taken a pair of scissors to some of the scenes, although I’m sure even simply speeding it up, and running it straight through without an interval might have added a momentum that’s hard to generate when you simply move from speech to speech. But under it all, there’s a quiet rhythm and a quiet poetry to it. Most surprisingly, it’s political with a determinedly lowercase ‘p.’ You don’t hear any speeches denouncing Thatcher or her policies; no sense that the circumstances of these people can be attributed to anyone – except maybe everyone.
And there are some gorgeous moments. There’s a wonderful scene where Michelle Fairley’s Helen is trying to seduce a drunk, younger soldier. It’s pathetic, and hopeless. He’s barely conscious and she’s desperate. She kneels in her plate of chips to dodge his vomit – the most convincing stage vomit I’ve seen since Adler and Gibb, incidentally – and you can’t help but wonder how the hell it got to this point. These characters can’t afford to have a past or a present, they can only afford to live quid to quid, in the moment.
It’s in the moment that the joy of the piece takes flight. These characters aren’t seeking anything but an ear. They want to be heard; they want everything to change and nothing to change. When Scullery dances to Swan Lake with an old trolley, the collision of absurdity and realism meant I couldn’t help but grin. It’s ridiculous, and somehow completely recognisable. Which is true for the whole piece, whenever I was worried it was falling into caricature, I’d remember someone I know who is exactly like that character in manner or attitude. I know everyone in this play, somehow.
I can forgive the dodgy scenes in Road because of the last one. Two lads and two girls, as the morning approaches. Everyone’s nervous, worried to make the first move. When the girls threaten to leave, the lads promise them something different. They drink a considerable amount of red wine, then stand, facing out, and we listen to Try A Little Tenderness in its entirety, as it swells from ballad to a thumping R&B blare. There’s the urge to move, to release the tension, but they just listen. The release comes after the music is over, and they begin to talk. They shout into the theatre, demanding to be heard, their dreams and their hopes.
And they start to chant, to incant even, “somehow a somehow might escape. Somehow a somehow might escape.” It’s a plea, and a prayer. It’s genuinely quite painful to listen to, at least to me. I thought about Tony’s line in Billy Elliot “we can’t all be fuckin’ dancers,” the idea that there are so many people doomed to spend their lives on this road, and knowing there’s no shame in that. But then somehow I have to reconcile my own desire to get as far away from my own road as possible, with my love for the people that live there still. The sheer fucking guilt you feel when you escape, but that you have to ignore in want of something else. And it’s all carried in that line.
John Tiffany’s production seems at first to expose the theatre for the skeleton that it is, but when you look closer, you see the back wall is a recreation, the poles at the side are fake lampposts… It’s simultaneously interior and exterior, nowhere and everywhere… It also seems very traditional.
When you put a piece like this, so overtly confrontational, in a proscenium arch space there’s inevitably dead air between the performer and the audience. There’s more effort in pushing the voice out into the space, and it somehow rings slightly hollow. It sounds like acting.
It’s not helped by the glass box designer Chloe Lamford uses to facilitate the quick scene changes. This sterile cube that is spat forth from the stage floor, revealing lonely figure after lonely figure to be watched. It does isolate the character, but to a fault. You hear the voice from the speakers, you know there’s a barrier between you and them. When those characters are asking to be heard, it lets the audience off the hook, because you can sense the separation.
There’s also the movement, actors sweeping across the stage removing and setting up props as they go. Sometimes they linger at the side of the stage, watching. At the end, this escalates into dance, and I’m not convinced it has the effect intended; it’s almost as if Tiffany doesn’t trust the words, and feels he has to create a visual magic on top of the linguistic. I use the word magic deliberately, because I did find it reminding me of his work on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child quite a lot. In mood, in atmosphere… even in aesthetic, although this was brick where Potter was wooden panels.
But Tiffany has assembled a great company of actors. They act entirely without ego – this is a play that would disintegrate if anyone tried – but with quiet dignity, and more importantly, you can tell they’re having a blast. Liz White and Faye Marsay (in her STAGE DEBUT ffs) are especially good, there’s a warmth and a wit to their portrayals that in other hands might feel contrived. White in particular can carve years into her expressions as she despairs over her husband and then ditch them as she scoffs chips on the edge of the stage at the end of a night out.
Also, excellent wigs throughout.
Periodically, I ask myself when was the last time I saw a northerner on stage. It’s often months in between occasions. If I ask myself when was the last time I saw a Scouser that wasn’t nicking something, I have to go back 3 and a half years to Educating Rita. You might argue that this isn’t the responsibility of the London theatres, as there are regional theatres that do this, and do it excellently. I beg to differ. The theatres in London have a status that privileges them. They get more money, and their reputations are more widely known. When that money is derived from taxes collected from all over the country, they have an obligation to represent the voices of those people.
Not only is Road a piece of the Royal Court’s history, it does exactly this. It puts the voices of working class northerners in direct conversation with the audience. I think to argue against this because of the affluence of the audience, and the location of the theatre (there’s a sodding Hugo Boss next door) is a cop out. Does it feel like the audience is laughing at the people Road portrays? Occasionally. For what it’s worth it didn’t bother me nearly as much as the audience at Ink did.
But it does raise the question, why do they need to revive it? Why isn’t the Royal Court putting on new plays that are dealing with the lives of working class northerners today? They’re doing it next season too, going back to a 35 year old play in Rita, Sue and Bob Too instead of commissioning new work. The only northern voices you hear are echoes from decades ago.
Because even at the Royal Court, with its reputation for being at the forefront of every theatrical shift, RP remains the standard. Take Anatomy of a Suicide, for instance (which I loved, before you start,) why did those women have to talk like that? Why couldn’t they talk with a Geordie accent? Or a Lancashire accent? Or Scouse? What about Bodies, upstairs at the moment. Middle-class people live in Yorkshire, too. And yes, there was a Scotsman in it, but Justine Mitchell couldn’t use her Irish voice? Escaped Alone, Unreachable, The Children… I’m sure there’s others. I’m probably being a bit harsh, or even unfair. But it seems to keep happening.
Put voices on stage that you will actually hear on the street. It’s not like by putting northerners on a stage you’re denying opportunities to cockneys, because you never hear them either. It doesn’t have to be about people from those areas. Just do it. It won’t destroy any world you’re meticulously trying to create, it just makes it sound more real.
Maybe I’m being old fashioned. Maybe what I’m suggesting is a version of realism that went out of style years ago. But it still lingers. And that pisses me off.
Photo by Johan Persson.