"An ambitious and relevant revival"- Road at Northern Stage Review

Carly Horne reviews Road at Northern Stage, the directorial debut of new artistic director Natalie Ibu.

Carly Horne
18th October 2021
Image Credit: Northern Stage

For the 35th anniversary of Jim Cartwright's 'Road' comes an ambitious revival of the play by Natalie Ibu, Northern Stage's new Artistic Director.

Where the play was originally set in Lancashire, North West of England, Ibu's revival brings the play a little closer to home. Though set in the North East, what prevails from the original works is the sense of desperation and dejection lying like a heavy cloud over this community.

Set during the time of a Thatcher Government, it seems that even the community spirit so long associated with the working classes is deteriorating. Much like its real-world parallel, 'Road' depicts a certain hopelessness for the future amidst a feeling of lower class abandonment and economic struggle.

'Road' is certainly as relevant now as it was in the 80s.

Joey, one of the residents of this community, is in the midst of a depression so deep he begins to starve himself. He hopes this "diet" will help him to win back the control he has lost, though spoiler alert: this effort ends exactly how you think it would.

The play subtely integrates apt references to official government documentation including The Beveridge Report (1942), which recommended the implementation of a lifelong social insurance system, re-appropriated in Joey's line: "They rush you from the cradle to the grave".

The tone of 'Road' is odd, going from comedic and jovial one moment to dark and incredibly serious the next. While one woman is attempting to seduce a soldier over a plate full of gravy, another is delivering an emotional monologue about her husband's addiction. As some of the older characters are engaged in an intense display of PDA, later we see another women subjected to what would today be considered slut-shaming and harassment.

Thus, the set made for an interesting addition to the play's atmosphere.

Those of us who grew up in a working class area will recognise as the orange streetlamps that never really seem to work all that well, and they worked as a prominent source of lighting.

The stage was set as though giving a glimpse into the front rooms of the property, each as small as the other. Just as we get a glimpse into the homes of the street's residents, so too do we only get a glimpse into their lives.

As a subtle look at just how the political landscape was impacting some of society's most vulnerable, from a widow using her cat's milk in her tea and a war veteran struggling not to reminisce on the past, through to excess drinking, engagement in violence and sexual fantasy (all in response to harsh Thatcherian economic policy), Road excells.

The phrase 'Tory Scum' on one of the set's walls echo views of working class residents, but comes badly timed in today's political landscape. Just as calls come to Labour's Angela Rayner to apologise for making the same remark at Labour's Party Conference, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the set addition even before the fatal stabbing of Sir David Amess MP.

That aside, 'Road' is otherwise a poignant insight into the lives of the working class during a time of redundancy and unemployment. It is not perfect, though the creatives behind the revival should not go without commendation.

At its core, Jim Cartwright's work is about forgotten people with hopes and dreams, during a political reign where their hopes and dreams were as unimportant as they themselves seemed.

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