A promenade of houses. Each living space, kitchen, bedroom and backyard represents a microcosm of life. Road’s set (designed by Amelia Jane Hankin) with multifaceted interiors and attention to detail, is a striking rendering of an imagined street in Blyth. The residents move slowly and silently in the darkness as they go about their individual evening rituals. It’s a thing of beauty and after a year away from the theatre, I’m not ready for the spectacle.
On stage, a salmon-pink sofa reminds me of my childhood home. I’m not sure if it’s a memory or a memory constructed from a photograph or something else. I’m three, holding a toy duck and laughing. My dad comes home from work in a grey suit, shoes on the brown carpet by the door. It’s late. He’s much younger than I am now. I sit on his lap and we read a book with a cardboard cut-out of bumblebee, that we drag from page to page. I fall asleep before the story is over. Throughout the show, I think of my dad and where he grew up. I imagine the conversations I will have with him about Thatcher’s Britain, and Gateshead in the early 80s and his brief stint as a guitarist in a punk band that headlined rowdy nights at the club.
Road, written by Jim Cartwright in 1985 and originally set in Lancashire, is a play about community, survival and resilience. For her directorial debut at Northern Stage, Artistic Director Natalie Ibu transposes the classic text to the North East. Scullery (Michael Hodgson), our narrator, is an irreverent scavenger and thief. He presents the audience with vignettes of working-class experience that range from the bleak to the bawdy. The language of the play is bloated, tumbling out of the mouths of its drunk, desperate characters who are searching for what exactly? Life is fucking long. It’s like ‘walking through meat in high heels’. Despite the pain, they listlessly plough on. It’s only after the dull ache of rage and the need for change pools in their bellies that cracks start to appear.
The play deals with familiar themes, like the decline of industry, unemployment and the crisis of masculinity, addressed through a series of loosely woven monologues. Sobering despair is undercut by chase scenes, kisses and lewd chaos, which often spills off-stage and into the audience. Road aligns itself to an epic like Under Milk Wood in its poetry and its sense of place. The second half has more momentum than the first. Without a plot to follow, we’re asked to surrender to whatever the night may bring. We weave in and out of houses and loiter on corners until dawn. But glimpses of life feel like just that. The text offers thinly drawn sketches of poverty. Like the road itself, the residents feel anonymised and non-specific, the effect of which is an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. This, despite the best efforts of a dynamic and cohesive cast including Ruby Crepin-Glyne and Shahbaaz Khan, who make confident professional debuts.
The issues touched upon in Road are still relevant. Life expectancy in Blyth is the lowest in the region and there’s a growing discrepancy between the North-East and the rest of the country. However, I found it dated in its representation of the working-class. The difficulty for me is in its reverence for the original text, which hasn’t aged well. I’d be interested to see a response play by a local voice, exploring the same subject matter, with a contemporary perspective. But it’s an impressive production in scale and ambition. As a statement of intent from the recently appointed Ibu, Road lays the foundations for exciting things to come.
Road runs at Northern Stage, Newcastle, until 30th October. More info here.