Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Hard trip down a dead end street

Lighting up: Sam Hotchin as Scullery,  the guide and derelict who leads us through the maze and alternative society of the suburban jungle


Stage2 Youth Theatre

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham


PERHAPS amid the interval drinks and crisps it would be an idea to offer Prozac to the audience – just in case – with another dose on offer at the end.

Road is theatre in the raw; stark, brutal and, partly because of the young age of the cast, crushingly depressing. You come out feeling emotionally battered.

The second saddest thing about Jim Cartwright play is that it offers no hope; there is not even a flicker of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The future is just more of the present, stretching on to eternity with its soul-wrenching, relentless  poverty and pointless existence.

It was the Labour Party's Aneurin Bevan who is reputed to have said that the worst form of poverty was poverty of ambition and that is perhaps what Cartwright's first play is about, people who can see no future, no point and no escape. Cartwright's road is a dead end.

It was written for the Royal Court in 1986 at the height of Margaret Thatcher's government and is set in one working class road in an industrial town in Cartwright's Lancashire, an area which was badly hit by unemployment.

The play utilises a very clever stark set  designed by Chris Cuthbert, constructed from scaffolding to give us eight rooms in the mythical street, eight rooms with eight stories as well as a skinhead in a balcony and a nutter wandering around with a box.

Leading us through the chaotic lives and constant noise of the road is Scullery, played with a genial air, hiding a touch of menace, by Sam Hotchin who carries the play along well.

It is a role remembered from the Royal Court when the late Ian Drury took over.

Scullery looks out over a locked gate to a world where he and those in the Road have been excluded

 With him is his faithful hoppo, Blowpipe, who says little in what is a fine performance by Alexander Earl who also shows a decent singing voice with The Beach Boys' hit Barbara Anne and Try a Little Tenderness. 

The characters start off reasonably normal – at least for the bottom end of society.

We start with the mum, Sophie Bowser, who has a life of drinking and casual relationships, trying to tap up her daughter Carol, played, yer know, by Rosie Nisbet for money so she can go for a drink.

Carol is off to the pub with her friend Louise, played by Sarah Quinn, and both would make tarts look almost respectable. They end up, at the end, with Eddie, the snappy dresser who wears a suit, played with a slightly psychotic air by Jonni Dowsett and his sidekick Brink, played by Khalid Daley.

But normality is a bit of a moveable feast on the road and George Hannigan is outstanding as Joey who has gone on hunger strike to  . . . protest . . . or . . . whatever. He is looking for a reason and is awaiting a sign, some sort of message.. A sign of what or for what he does not know. He is joined by his girlfriend Clare, a lovesick teenager played by Anna Gilmore, who finds some sort of noble romantic ideal in starving to death with her man. They have no reason to starve themselves into oblivion but, even more tragic, they can see no reason not to.

There is another stand-out performance from Siobhan Twissell as Helen, a blousey slapper, who is desperate for love and who tries to seduce a comatose soldier whose only contribution to the act of sex is to remain unconscious with an added bonus of throwing up. It is funny and sad all at the same time.

We meet a skinhead, played by Neil Gardner, who manages to mix a life of violence with a belief in Buddhism and the Professor, played by Connor Fox, who is a self taught anthropologist and is documenting life in the street, keeping notes in a box he drags around him as part of his job as the local eccentric.

We see a despairing wife in Valerie, Aisha Taylor, talking about her boorish, unemployed husband and waiting up for him to come home drunk or to save time there is the already drunk Curt, Gabriel Hudson, who tells us that the road has always been different than the rest of the world. “It's where things slide to but don't drop off.”

There is casual sex, or at least casual hoped for sex, between Brian and Marion, Ethan Tarr and Helen Carter, with Marion demanding something to eat first and Brian finding his style a little cramped when his young daughter Linda, Emily Cremins appears.

There is Jerry, played by Mark James,  an old man who cannot let go of the past and who cannot cope with the emptiness of his life.

And finally we return to Eddie and Brink who bring Carol and Louise back to ply them with wine with the promise of what men have always plied women with wine for in what is the longest scene of the play with a search for some sort of meaning found in Otis Redding's soul cover of  Try a Little Tenderness.

Scullery in an industrial landscape where industry has long died

But ultimately we are told there is no solution and it all ends with the desperate chant from all the cast of Somehow I might escape – but even though it is deafening with more than 60 voices shouting in unison you know it is an empty plea, a futile gesture and no matter what they say or do, they never will escape.

In the professional theatre Road gets by with a cast of half a dozen or so, rather like Cartwright's Two, with actors in multiple roles – but this is Stage2, and the indomitable Liz Light can happily work a couple of dozen people into a one man show, so the cast is up in the 60s and the audience, like the characters in the road, cannot escape from any of them.

The cast, dressed superbly like characters from a bad night on nearby Broad Street  are raucous, arguing and running around in the bar and foyer at the start and in the interval. They provide a play within a play and, to their credit, managed more than passable Lancashire accents, all as if the paying customers didn't exist. You are immersed in the road, part of their lives, with the play all around you - except at the end when the audience are left with an empty darkened stage which produced a standing ovation to . . . emptiness . . . paying homage to nothing. And perhaps that was the point.

Forget this is youth theatre, forget it is an amateur production – this is first class theatre full of fine performances with not a single weak link.

It could perhaps be shortened a tad, particularly at the end, while children running about in Scullery's opening speech are a little noisy and distracting but these are minor quibbles which I am sure were noticed on opening night.

I mentioned that the second saddest thing about the play was it offered no hope, so what was the saddest thing?

Twenty six years on, a full generation, the play is still relevant, still strikes a chord,  and the gap between haves and have nots, rich and poor, is wider than ever. That is perhaps the real tragedy of Jim Cartwright's play – that his Road, and thousands like it, still exist. Directed by Liz Light it runs to 21-04-12.

Roger Clarke 

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