First published in The Times, Friday October 15 2021
Natalie Ibu’s revival of Road is an ambitious calling card for the new artistic director of Northern Stage. Jim Cartwright’s theatrical tapestry, first staged in the mid-1980s, famously weaves together the lives of some 35 characters: residents of a single street in a run-down working-class pocket of Lancashire.
Ibu’s decision to relocate the action to the northeast of England adds an extra layer of poignancy and immediacy for an audience that has been deprived of live theatre for 18 months. It also allows the cast to bring a different set of rhythms and emphases to the revealing lyricism of Cartwright’s script.
Let’s face it, the play’s portrayal of an embattled underclass, raddled by deprivation, and the deprecation and inebriation that makes life bearable, could easily have been updated to the present day. Ibu has opted to keep the 1980s period setting, thus leavening rage and despair with nostalgia, threads from the decade fashion forgot and an infectious soundtrack of pop classics.
Cartwright’s play is often staged as a promenade production, and though the action here occasionally spills out into the auditorium, some of the quieter vignettes fall foul of the rather unforgiving stage at the Newcastle venue. Amelia Jane Hankin’s cutaway dollhouse set design, while striking, creates an atmosphere that is at times more voyeuristic than intimate.
Still, Ibu’s production, over its nearly three-hour running time, builds a strong portrait of a community with bleak prospects and largely avoids any temptation towards the trite or didactic. The audience is kept on its toes by scenes of simmering violence undercut by moments of humour and pathos but also honest portrayals of deep, unremitting despair.
Inevitably, some of the stories hit home more powerfully than others. Ike Bennett and Ruby Crepin-Glyne are touching as a young couple, whose lack of prospects result in them undertaking a hunger strike with tragic consequences. Nicole Sawyerr gives a performance of quiet fury as Valerie, the downtrodden wife of an alcoholic layabout, hunch-shouldered and pinned into one tiny corner of the vast set. Michael Hodgson gives nuance to Scullery, the play’s narrator, while the climactic scene in which a quartet of youngsters erupt into an angry slam poetry session, fuelled by cheap wine and Otis Redding, is as moving as it is rousing.
Box office: 0191 230 5151, to October 30. northernstage.co.uk