The second of the three shows to be performed by the final year acting students at the University of Northampton this year is Road, Jim Cartwright’s highly praised 1986 play about the lives of people on one road in an unnamed town during the Thatcher years. Directed by Séan Aydon, we’re led by our narrator Scullery, who introduces us to various houses and locations in the road to meet the locals, observe their lives, share their laughter and their tears. I’d never seen this play before so I was particularly looking forward to seeing whether it merits its reputation and if it has stayed relevant today.
This is very hard to assess because I’m afraid the play did absolutely nothing for me on a personal level. We get little snippets of people’s lives but hardly any insight into anyone’s progression, so there’s no sense of development and the play feels very static. Those characters that we do meet more than once, at the end of one long hard night, haven’t really gone anywhere. Scullery is the same optimistic cheeky soul at the end of the evening as at the beginning. Old Jerry is still padding around in his slippers, dreaming of his lost love. The girls who have gone out early evening to get wrecked have successfully got wrecked at the end of the night – no surprise there. Eddie and Brink go to the pub and come back with Carol and Linda, although their evening ends on a surreal note – as does the play.
The one time that the play does soar is when it goes out of time-synch and shows us what Scullery portentously calls The Story of Joey – a likeable lad who has locked himself away, descending into depression, refusing to eat, or come out of his room, and his friend Clare who joins him and stays because she loves him. It feels genuinely tragic; and when, fourteen days of self-starvation later, they come to take their bodies away you get an enormous sense of wasted life. The scene was also enhanced by having what was probably the best two performances in the play, with Jimmy Ericson as the frustrated and furious Joey, and Liz Millward as the sad and supportive Clare.
The play also feels very uneven because there are several very short scenes and a couple of inordinately long ones. In the final, very long, scene, Eddie and Brink attempt to get the girls very drunk, which then turns into three minutes of character silence – nothingness really – whilst they dance, at first inanely then later recklessly, to a record on the turntable – and that whole experience seems to turn them all into amateur philosophers. I’m afraid it felt disappointingly pretentious. As some of the other residents of the road come out to gaze affectionately at the young people and the lights go down, we were wondering what significant thing it was that everyone else understood but we missed.
True, there were some more good performances there, with Liz Millward again as Linda, Miclaire Nkoy excellent as Carol, Shane McCormack as Eddie and, with a very subtly threatening performance, Elliot Andrew-Murray as Brink. Mr Andrew-Murray also turned in a very confident and strongly performed vignette earlier as the meditating Skin-Lad. Other performances I enjoyed came from Elliot Innes as the rather wacky Professor and the aggressive Barry, Dana Sergejevo in a number of roles, but best as the rather plastered lady trying to seduce the drunk soldier (another very good performance by Jimmy Ericson) and Ida Sade as the combative Brenda.
It’s a tough play to keep the energy levels up, because some scenes feel very slight in comparison with others. There were a few times when it sagged, and it occasionally annoyed me by what I felt was a shallowness; we only scratched the surface of these people’s lives and often what we saw made us more confused about who they were rather than enlightened us. Nevertheless, the cast made a good job of conveying the seedier and more depressing aspects of 1980s life, and I only wish I could have seen them perform something that would have allowed their talents a greater opportunity to shine through!