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Road review at Royal Court, London – ‘an underwhelming revival’

Mark Hadfield and Michelle Fairley in Road at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Mark Hadfield and Michelle Fairley in Road at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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In his productions of The Glass Menagerie and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Olivier-winning director John Tiffany crafted worlds of delicacy and magic. Jim Cartwright’s 1986 smash-hit debut play, Road – which premiered at the Royal Court 30 years ago – is, on the other hand, a grubby, gobby, promenade portrait of Thatcher’s Britain shot through with sex, squalor, swearing and sadness.

The union of director and material, for this rare Royal Court revival, doesn’t quite come off – there are moments when it feels like Tiffany is trying to pick out a Mozart symphony on a kazoo. Though he lends Cartwright’s ribald writing a transcendent lyricism, eking moments of gentle reflection out of Berkoffian drama, occasionally his magic touch falters and Road starts to show signs of wear.

Cartwright’s play takes the audience for a night out in the suburbs of a run-down Lancashire everytown, caricaturing the lives of its inhabitants in full-on, frank detail through a series of loosely linked sketches. There’s Scullery (an intense Lemn Sissay), our shambling, homeless tour-guide. There’s Joey (a febrile Shane Zaza), starving himself to death in search of something better. There’s Valerie (an achingly downtrodden Liz White), desperately scrimping and saving while her abusive husband drowns in booze. There’s drinking, there’s depression, and there’s decay.

The multi-rolling ensemble cast deliver all of this with exuberance and enthusiasm, dialling it up to eleven throughout. There’s particularly arresting work from Mark Hadfield, investing a nostalgia-addled widow with affecting angst, and from Michelle Fairley, who supplies the evening’s funniest moments as a sex-crazed woman, feverishly attempting to seduce a sozzled soldier.

Tiffany’s direction is always inventive, filling Chloe Lamford’s cavernous, brick-lined set with rhythmic, often anarchic movement and a superb selection of songs – the final moments, played out to Elbow’s Lippy Kids, are the production’s finest.

A cluster of fading furniture is wheeled about with abandon, and a glass box periodically rises from the stage floor, inside which characters deliver brutal monologues.

But too often, his staging exposes the frailty of Cartwright’s text. Half-hearted stabs at audience interaction don’t pay off, extravagant 1980s get-ups push the whole thing towards pantomime, and the rich vein of blunt, bawdy humour is almost entirely bulldozed over resulting in moments that have the uncomfortable air of poverty porn and voyeurism.

Tiffany is unable to successfully reroute Cartwright’s anti-Thatcher ire towards the obvious contemporary parallels with modern British life even though that must have been, in part, the point of reviving the play in the first place. It ends up feeling like a period piece.

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An inventively staged but underwhelming revival of Jim Cartwright's 1986 smash-hit