Comedy meets tragedy in this pop-up production of Jim Cartwright’s iconic Northern play…
“It’s a long life, isn’t it.” This phrase runs through the heart of Road, as the working-class community trapped on a single street by unemployment share their stories of poverty, love and loss across one rowdy Friday night. Set in an unnamed Northern town, we’re introduced to Scullery, the play’s guide and narrator just home from sea, who wanders the titular ‘Road’ with us.
Throughout the rollercoaster evening, he weaves in and out of everyone’s lives – speaking to both the characters and the audience alike. Joe Alessi’s performance as the drunk but ever-entertaining Scullery is one of the play’s consistent highlights, drawing you in with a sly wink and a crude sense of humour. Road is a play that deliberately avoids being pinned down, and Scullery is the embodiment of it, leaping, dancing and climbing around the elaborately designed stage with seemingly limitless energy.
Set design plays a big part of the show, as the street’s balconies, back alleys and even bathrooms are all combined into one multi-tiered world before our eyes. As you enter the theatre space, the chaotic effect takes a few minutes to adjust your eyes to, and it’s not until the play starts that you appreciate how all the elements work together to create a living, breathing story.
There’s more license to create this kind of stage now, as Road represents the very first of Leeds Playhouse’s Pop-up plays, while the main theatre itself is undergoing a £15.8 million redevelopment. Performed in one of the usually hidden-away workshops round the back of the theatre, the slightly claustrophobic nature of the smaller space adds to the experience – making you feel like another resident of the Road.
But I’m not going to beat around the bush, if you’re looking for a breezy and easy-to-watch play, Road might not be for you. This is very much an adults-only play, with a vocabulary of strong language and stronger themes. Of course there are moments with huge belly laughs, smiles and a touch of slapstick, but these are tempered by heartbreaking portraits of despair and loneliness that cut you to the core. In particular, one spellbinding scene sees elderly gentleman Jerry relaying his bittersweet memories of the past, conveyed in such melancholic fashion by Robert Pickavance that you can feel the audience wanting to reach out and hug him.
Audience involvement is a constant theme, with characters running down the aisles, sitting on laps and even hiding amongst the audience. Usually the interval is just a few minutes to stretch your legs and get a drink or an ice cream. While you can still do all of that, here the interval is also part of the play, putting you inside the local club as the DJ throws out classic 80s hits, and the characters throw some shapes – they even invite audience members to dance with them.
It’s not just audience interaction, the production adds a whole new level of audio description too. At the side of the stage is an old-school phone box, and throughout the play, there’s always one rotating cast member inside performing audio description for visually impaired audience members with headsets. With the actual actors performing the description, it brings far more life to it than a disembodied voice in a room.
If you’ve never seen Road before, its directness and intimacy takes some adjustment. Where else could you find scenes of people down the chippy after a night out alongside a hunger strike based around an existential crisis? Or characters alternating between staring out into the audience or screaming about ‘something more’ in the iconic final scene? To add to the surreal experience, the entirety of Otis Redding’s song ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ thunders out from the record player beside them all the while.
Tackling deep themes with unflinching honesty, it’s safe to say that Road is a hugely important production, with ideas and issues that echo into the modern day. So if you’re after a bold and striking play, tinged with hope and humour, be sure to check it out.
Road is showing at Leeds Playhouse’s Pop-up Theatre until Saturday 29th September 2018. Tickets start from £13.50.Cover image credit: Kirsten McTernan