Review of Road at Oldham Coliseum.
Road, Jim Cartwright’s scabrous slice of 1980s Lancashire life still has the power to knock you sideways. It comes on strong with promises of a riotous night out, all good times and laughs. Only to repeatedly dissolve into the dark dead ends of Thatcher’s Britain – no jobs, no money, and no hope.
On its premiere in 1986, the play was originally performed promenade style. Gitika Buttoo’s new production accommodates itself within the more traditional form of the Coliseum’s stage – although characters will occasionally stray into the auditorium.
Designer Foxton’s ingeniously compact set compresses the road into a shabby jumble of rooms and lives, stacked on top of each other and cheek by jowl.
As our guide, Richard J Fletcher’s Scullery addresses the audience directly while introducing and exchanging words with his fellow residents.
Relying on the accumulation of stories and experiences to draw the audience in (“you see all sorts down here”) rather than a linear plot, Cartwright’s narrative is scrappy and fragmented. Its uneven contours and sudden changes in tone can make it a difficult play to steer, and in the first half the production occasionally loses focus.
Use of the fashion and tunes of the time reinforces the 1980s setting, but there is much in Cartwright’s writing that transcends the period that inspired it. It is brutally effective at documenting poverty’s poisonous effects on family relationships and the agony of hopelessness.
There’s plenty of sex and drink and chips, but they won’t cure the pain of falling on hard times or stop the yearning for what has been taken away. Paula Lane’s weary wife, dealing with the impacts of unemployment on her husband, pleads, “can we not have before back again?”.
That unbearable sense of loss is powerfully conveyed by William Travis’s Jerry. A man suddenly on the scrap heap and taunted by the happy memories of the life he once enjoyed. Travis turns in another finely tuned performance as the Professor, capturing the voices of “the slums” on his tape recorder and selling them on in booklet form for the price of a pint.
Most of the cast are similarly called on to multi-role, and the play’s unforgiving structure offers them limited time to inhabit and make real the bawdy cavalcade of characters.
Alyce Liburd seems particularly at home with the format and hits her stride from the moment she first appears, mouthing off while doing some ironing. She delivers a great run of performances, none more so than as the young woman who takes to her bed, along with her partner, in despair at the loss of her job. Powerless to do much else, she stays there with him, and succumbs to one final twisted act of defiance.
In the wrong hands, Road’s residents could tip over into caricature, and sometimes the tragedy and comedy at the heart of the play sit uncomfortably close together. Director Buttoo manages those tricky balancing acts well, and the production benefits from two hugely affecting performances from Claire Storey that skilfully navigate those same issues.
As both the seemingly dotty pensioner, who is actually sliding into dementia, and the drunken would-be-seductress who brings a paralytic young soldier back from the pub, Storey subtly transforms amusement into heartbreak with admirable precision.
Someone warns against turning the immersion heater on at one point, genuinely fearful of the consequences, and such concerns feel depressingly current.
Yet fate has gifted Gitika Buttoo’s lively and robust revival even more relevance than might have been anticipated. With the return of trickle-down economics and a prime minister partial to Iron Lady cosplay, this terrifying portrait of a community laid low by Thatcherite policies explodes from the stage like a warning shot.
There’s hope too, channelled into calls for change. After the events of the last few weeks, it’s hard not to be struck forcefully by the words of Zoe Iqbal’s Louise in the play’s final moments. “I want the surface up and off and all the gold and jewels and light out on the pavements”. A dream not just of a better life but a radically different England.
Road runs at Oldham Coliseum from 16 September to 1 October 2022.
Performance seen on 20 September 2022.
Prices – tickets from £17, and concessionary tickets are available for 16-25 & NUS for £7.
Images by Chris Payne.