In the Royal Court’s Theatre Downstairs, it isn’t a road that greets you – it’s a plaza. The looming lampposts, the sweeping flight of steps, the high walls and crumbly, bricked up windows hinting at a dignity long gone; Jim Cartwright’s Road implies a journey, but John Tiffany’s Road stays put, choosing to parade its characters across the square instead of taking us with them.
The first promenade version of Road, burrowing in and around the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs just over 30 years ago, brought the audience into intimate spaces, face to face with the disenfranchised working class of the north through the play’s fragmented vignettes and monologues. Its BBC screen adaptation (whose ensemble included David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp and Jane Horrocks) sharpened that gritty intimacy with the documentary realism of the camera. This Road, showy and presentational, turns that grit to gloss, and its characters yaw between thin caricature and occasional glimpse of the real.
Road’s text is strange and beautiful, its drink-sodden, poverty-steeped characters all scratching furiously at a desperation and anger buried somewhere inside. They move between fumbling for words and dripping poetry. There’s Molly (June Watson), sitting in front of a tiny compact powder mirror, white hair a halo, trying to put on some makeup: “Here’s me in me little house, havin’ some tea in between, in between dolling up for a drink, a drink, a drink… Here’s little me.” There’s Louise (Faye Marsay), teary-eyed after listening to Otis Redding: “I want to say things but it hard. I have big wishes, you know? I want my life to be all shined up. It’s so dull. Everything’s so dulled.” Drink and dullness, a refrain that goes right through the heart of the play, the refrain of a Thatcherite generation left behind.
This revival, however, plumps up the northern earthiness as a sort of exotic hook to bring the audience in and leaves it there, relying on bald slapstick or cheap pathos for laughter and sympathy. The slice-of-life monologues, amped up and declamatory to fill the stage’s square, remain just that. We don’t get more than a brief, voyeuristic look at these characters’ lives – and the sleek transparent container that rises above the stage’s surface, putting various characters on display within, gives the production the feel of carefully arranged museum dioramas instead of cramped council flats.
But, occasionally, there are touches of something deeper – when the cast makes an effort to reach for it. Michelle Fairley’s Helen is all verve and vulnerability in a scene where she attempts to seduce a hopelessly drunk young soldier, deftly turning the encounter from a well-choreographed farce to quiet tragedy. Clare (Marsay) and Joey’s (Shane Zaza) confiding conversation in their narrow double bed, as they sag under the weight of despair, is a moving portrait of emotional inarticulacy. I craved these moments when characters weren’t either completely booze-soaked or utterly sex-starved.
Road goes from sunset to sunrise, from flat to pub to street and back again, but the passing of time doesn’t show here. Tiffany’s production is purgatorial, caught between grounding itself in the past as a well-observed period piece but also half attempting to draw some sort of allegory with the current climate of austerity. Without an anchor, Road drifts by, losing so much along the way.
Road is on until 9 September 2017 at the Royal Court Theatre. Click here for more details.