Road review – raucous 80s account of a divided Britain still hits close to home

Jim Cartwright’s play was first staged by Simon Curtis in 1986 as a promenade production that took the audience on a nocturnal journey through the cobbled streets of an imagined Lancashire town. Even if John Tiffany’s revival doesn’t make the same visceral impact, it does rich justice to a play that pins down the raucous despair and ebullient hopelessness of a community scarred by unemployment, where people do their best to live for the moment.

Under the guidance of the thieving Scullery (Lemn Sissay) we watch the road’s youngsters scratching a few quid together to go out for a night of booze and sex. But much of the play’s power rests on a series of bleak vignettes, now staged, in Chloe Lamford’s design, in a glass box rising from the ground like a strip-lit prison. The most painful shows the bed-bound Joey and Clare, who says that “every day’s like swimming in ache”, starving themselves to death in an unromantic suicide pact. We also get a poignant glimpse of the married Valerie, who is full of exasperated sympathy for a jobless husband who spends the weekly giro on drink but roams about the house like a bewildered animal.

Sadly hilarious … Mark Hadfield and Michelle Fairley in Road by Jim Cartwright at the Royal Court, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Cartwright doesn’t go in for political analysis. What he does is record, with exemplary honesty, the consequences of living in an economically run-down society.

What makes his portrait all the more moving is the periodic recollection of times past. A lonely old man recalls an era when there were plentiful jobs, holidays in the Isle of Man or Blackpool and “we all felt special but safe at the same time”. Even the young seem aware there must be a world elsewhere: a drunken double-date between two guys and girls turns into a form of spiritual liberation under the influence of Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness.

Tiffany’s production highlights the play’s poetic lyricism in several ways: Scullery does a pas de deux with a shopping trolley to the sounds of Swan Lake, and the whole cast also engage in a climactic ritual that hints at the human potential for happiness.

There are striking performances by Michelle Fairley, sadly hilarious in a scene where she vainly seeks to seduce a drunken soldier, and from Mark Hadfield and June Watson as solitary oldsters and from Shane Zaza and Faye Marsay as the death-haunted lovers.

Cartwright’s play emerged when there were three million people unemployed. What is tragic is that it seems just as relevant in today’s depressed, divided Britain.

At the Royal Court, London, until 9 September. Box office: 020-7565 5000.

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