Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Oldham Coliseum Company
September 16-October 1, 2022: 2hr 30min
In the 1980s Jim Cartwright, like a lot of his fellow actors, couldn't get work. Some parts of the north of England were decaying and desolate, and Cartwright decided to write about the sense of hopelessness and bemusement he felt and saw around him.
Road was the result: a wheeling, swearing, bottom-of-the-barrel look at the cashless society of Margaret Thatcher's late prime-ministership; and by cashless, I mean without money, not waving your phone at a till-point.
It's a magnificently dour creation: alcoholic bum Scullery takes us on a tour of his Lancashire road - we don't find out its name because the street sign has broken. We see the people who live in the decaying mess; the elderly, the confused, the young and disheartened, the middle-aged and desperate, many of them keen to drink away their troubles.
We see them all get ready, go to the local club, meet up and go back for more drink and connection.
We see two of them starve themselves in a quiet little vignette; a middle-aged woman try desperately to have sex with a drunken, comatose soldier; the father of a 12-year-old girl openly bring a woman back to his home for sex, regardless of his child's presence in the home; young girls attempt to get young men - and vice versa - as a way of alleviating the dullness of their lives; a woman admit how unpleasant her pregnant life has become since her husband lost his job, and so on.
Cartwright wrote the play thinking society had pretty much fallen as far as it could go. Today, of course, he realises things are even worse, so Road is as relevant now as it was in 1986.
It's a masterpiece of sorts; a little uneven here and there, but when it flies, it really flies; packed with pathos, tragic comedy that makes us laugh before we fully realise the terrible lives being laid bare.
I'm not sure this Coliseum production fully hits the mark. Among some lovely performances, the work of no less than three directors – Gitika Buttoo, movement director Grace Goulding, and a new one on me, "intimacy" director Enric Ortuno – often goes for broad laughs when broad laughs are not necessarily needed, particularly in Claire Storey's scene with the soldier (John Askew). This is comedy borne of pain and hopelessness, not simple physical business.
Elsewhere the show sometimes confuses, failing (for me, anyway) to fully delineate the many different characters and scenes. The nine actors - John Askew, Shaban Dar, Kofi Dennis, Zoe Iqbal, Paula Lane, Alyce Liburd, Storey and William Travis - play 25 characters between them, with Richard J Fletcher as our guide, Scullery. Foxton's all-in-one set (lit by Jason Taylor), is a lovely mish-mash of tat and decay, but doesn't make it easy to distinguish between locations.
Finally, for me, the most disappointing element is the lack of precision in enunciating Cartwright's wonderfully stylised, brutal "northern" language. Maybe it was where I was sitting on Tuesday night, but I often lost the openings and closings of sentences – sometimes masked by backing music played a shade too loud, sometimes hidden even under the Coliseum's quiet forced-air system, sometimes because cast members simply weren't clear enough.
Luckily the climax of the show - the four-way session in which young desperates Louise (Zoe Iqbal), Carol (Alyce Liburd), Brink (Kofi Dennis) and Eddie (John Askew), drink, listen to Otis Redding and then encourage each other to angrily shout away their ills – fully offers a glimmer of hope that feeling better about themselves and their troubles is the first step to being better within their lives.
Info and tickets here