Back in 1999 the League of Gentlemen included a significant sketch about the effects of northern playwrights in their live tour show. It gently mocked their poetic style with mini-monologues that built to a rising chant, arguing that rather than merely reflect the world around them, writers such as Willy Russell, John Godber and Jim Cartwright had enshrined a particular vision of northern lives that had become impossible to shake off, which is perhaps now ripe for rediscovery. For the most part, their plays fell out of fashion and while Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine continue to attract audiences, it’s been a while since a major London theatre has produced a show by one of the key drivers of northern drama.
Jim Cartwright’s Road, returns to the Royal Court more than 30 years after it debuted in 1986, examining the lives of one set of residents in a generic Lancashire town. And while the odd accent drops by from Newcastle, it tells a story of poverty, hopelessness and futile ambition, yearning for a better future and nostalgic for a happier past. Road is essentially an anthology of monologues from different perspectives that build to form a picture of mass desperation and loneliness.
The message is not a subtle one and Cartwright pulls no punches in showing the bleakness of his characters’ lives, but his work retains a powerful force that if nothing else, reminds you still how rarely true working-class lives are depicted on stage. There’s not much time to spend with each character and how deeply you connect with the individual tale does vary depending on the subject and skill of the actor, but John Tiffany’s production does leave you with a wider sense of separate lives all struggling against the same sense of confinement and limitation.
Interestingly, Cartwright’s work also seems to fit into the wider representations of northern lives that use many of the same tropes and experiences, a sense of consistency with past and future that suggests a semi-unchanging pattern of life. Valerie’s monologue in Act Two is a painful examination of a woman at her wit’s end, struggling to keep her family above water because her oafish husband wastes their weekly giro on booze. Valerie’s fear and endless fret she realises has turned to hate for her alcoholic spouse who takes everything from his family and gives nothing in return. There are strong parallels here with Sons and Lovers as Mrs Morel experiences the same frustrations with her miner husband who leaves her to struggle while he drinks his evenings away. That same sense of entrapment, loathing her partner but unable to leave, needing to protect the children, links Cartwright and Lawrence so clearly 70 years apart.
And in the example of more recent writers, Cartwright’s work – or at least the same set of experiences – inform the TV creations of Victoria Wood and Jimmy McGovern. Cartwright’s set of ballsy young women out for a drink, a good time and a man for the night come up time and time again in Wood’s sketches, and when the characters in Road head to the chip shop on their way home, you can’t help but think of the Chip Shop song from Wood’s As Seen on TV, the last stopping point before the people desperate to forget, head back to their real lives. And McGovern’s recent dramas utilise the multi-perspective approach that Cartwright introduces in Road in his renowned drama The Street and recently Broken with different narrative voices driving each episode. Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but he’s part of a chorus of voices all trying to tell us the same thing in the last hundred years.
One of the startling things about John Tiffany’s new interpretation is the influence of more abstract European theatre-makers in the production design. We’re told at the start by our partial narrator / master of ceremonies Scullery (Lemn Sissay) that Road is set somewhere between the town and the slagheap, a purgatorial midpoint between everything and nothing. Chloe Lamford’s set abjures the expected row of houses for a courtyard-like meeting place where characters momentarily cross paths on their way to and from nights out, backed by the bricked-up window arches of a supposedly derelict house.
Interior scenes take place in a small off-centre square that characters drag chairs or ironing boards into, snippets of crushed-up lives in terraced housing. As one scene moves off, the entire square rises into the air revealing a glass box in which a series of rooms are presented throughout the course of the play, each with a different perspective and a shade of working-class life coexisting on the same road.
Microphoned glass boxes are becoming quite the thing; the Young Vic’s Olivier award winning Yerma, which has a brief revival this summer, takes place in one and they appear regularly in the work of Complicite and collaborators Schaubuhne Berlin, used as a way to distance the audience from individuals speaking, while also making them seem like untouchable historical artefacts kept in pristine boxes commenting on our appropriation and repurposing of history from a living breathing thing to a rose-tinted fiction. So, you see this influence here as Lamford, who has worked with Schaubuhne, comments on this enshrined image of the northern working-classes that the League of Gentlemen mocked so voluble.
Given the slightly chapter-like nature of the play, it’s mix of realist and abstract forms make it a challenging watch, but director John Tiffany has assembled a creative team with considerable experience of working with some of the leading alternative theatre companies. As well as Lamford who has also worked with star director Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Sound Designer Gareth Fry and Assistant Director Grace Gummer’s have Complicite experience. Tiffany’s own work this year includes the excellent The Glass Menagerie (as well as Harry Potter), which brought a touching emotional truth to Tennessee Williams’s play about fragility, and this combined experience of showing constrained lives, and how external interpretations have shaped our picture of areas of our society, is something that comes through in this production’s attempt to liberate the emotional impact of Cartwright’s characters behind the clichés.
One criticism that can surely be levelled at the play is its lack of deep engagement with any of its characters, and while they all get some time to speak, either in specific talking-heads style monologues, or in conversation with others, it’s true that we only have a surface understanding of each one. But, arguably, Cartwright’s play does this deliberately to form a combined impression, and has much to say to us now about how well we know, or care about our neighbours. How many people on this road know as much about each other as we find out in 10-minute soliloquies; how much do we know about the people who live on our own street?
And the multi-tasking cast give us plenty to think about as they successfully inhabit as series of funny, touching and affecting scenarios. Leading a talented cast is Michelle Fairley first as Brenda the brusquely worn, impoverished single-mother scrounging money from her daughter getting ready for a night out, but best of all as Helen an older woman seducing a young soldier so drunk he can barely stand. Fairley manhandles him to great comic effect, attempting to undress him but falling in her chips, the one-sided conversation all-the-while insisting he’s seducing her, before a punch of reality cuts right through the humour at the end as Fairley conveys the hopeless domestic tragedy of Helen’s life.
Excellent and heart-breaking work too from Mark Hadfield as the former RAF man aching for a past that has long departed. Jerry’s loneliness is palpable as he reminisces about the gentility of decades past and his lost love, as shrieking drunken girls pass his window, which Hadfield seems to feel as physical stabs mocking the emptiness of his current life. Mike Noble is fascinating as Skin-Lad describing the transition from violent past to Buddah-loving peacekeeper, and as well as the Lawrencian Valerie, Liz White brings cheeky appeal to Carol who on the surface is all gobby attitude but with friend Louise (Faye Marsay) longs for something different, longs for escape.
Gareth Fry’s music choices are part of that momentary escape for every character and Road is stuffed with recognisable tunes that underscore the search for meaning and longing in each of the character’s life. Whether it’s the lyrics to Don’t You Want Me Baby sung by the girls going out on the town, the gentle 40s rhythms that pensioner Molly listens to as she does her make-up in the kitchen, Otis Redding soothing the flashy boys when they get home, or the stirring sweep of Swan Lake that erupts from the music box that Scullery steals, music is used to connect to the soul, something alive and still fighting for more, mirroring the poetic rhythm of Cartwright’s writing, and carefully selected to add insight to this show.
Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but Road leaves you with plenty to think about and the consistent impression of warmth, humanity and so much life amidst the petty tragedies and containment of working-class experience. Whether the League of Gentlemen were right and Cartwright and his ilk have done northern writing a disservice is for you to decide, but it’s telling that modern impressions of the ‘underclass’ are all about violence, hoodies and tower blocks written by people who’ve never lived that way. There is a kind of truth in the work of Cartwright, Lawrence, Wood and others we seem to be losing, the value of letting people tell their own stories, fostering creativity wherever it exists and looking beyond the clichés for all the different kinds of lives that Road reminds us we are far from understanding.
Road is at the Royal Court until 9 September and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1