Jim Cartwright’s Road is regarded as a cult classic. First performed at the notorious and politically subversive Royal Court Theatre in 1986; it is an angrier, edgier, homage to the angry young men plays of the 1950’s, such as John Osborn’s Look Back in Anger, complete with the defining class satire and explicit, shocking content. In the 1980’s it did for theatre what John Cooper Clarke did for performance poetry, in that Cartwright made the form appeal as being refreshingly punk – a vital part of fringe culture, as opposed to being reserved for a social elite as was, and perhaps sadly still is, the attitude of many towards theatre.
It is fitting that Road be restaged here in Birmingham during a time of grim austerity under recession and rising unemployment. The stories of working class characters on a derelict estate appear as relevant as ever, and as a huge fan of the source material I was anxiously anticipating a night of unrelenting venal and crass assaults that ought to challenge any audience of unsuspecting patrons.
On entering the Crescent’s auditorium it was a shock to discover that Stage2 is an all-youth troupe! It was a cast of school kids performing a play rife with sexually explicit scenes and filthy language, not to mention an unrelentingly bleak tone. There is no moment of redemption or reconciliation at any point; Road starts depressing and ends with the characters either miserably despondent or (spoiler alert) dead. Could this be a diluted version of the source material, perhaps a cleaner, twee version? Two minutes in, however, and it became apparent that such apprehensions were thankfully, though terrifyingly, unfounded.
The young actors were genuinely stunning. The nuances of emotion and self-awareness required for such complex characters always felt natural and effortless. For example, Sam Hotchin put in a brilliant turn as the boorish Scullery, the linchpin narrator character guiding the audience through the vignettes in each house along the road. Hotchin was an intimidating presence; impulsively aggressive, morose or playful, this Scullery was a welcoming host who could snap at any moment. Though beneath the crass repartee, he inscribed his Scullery with a certain world-weariness that is only implied in Cartwright’s script with the pessimistic line ‘just remember folks, if God did make them little green apples, he also made snot.’
Other highlights included George Hannigan and Anna Gilmore as a young couple on an existential hunger strike. Both of their monologues were particularly affecting, especially given their initial light-hearted exchange. Indeed the playing off of hilarious pathos with the tougher scenes had the effect of making the heavier moments feel even more sincere and earned throughout; something largely in debt to the strength of the young actors’ performances.
A word must also be said for the production. Stage2 really made the most of the Crescent theatre auditorium. There was a two-story scaffold construction in the centre stage that divided into six subsections, each representing a house along the road. Framed by dustbins and litter, the cast were scattered all around the theatre. They were in the isles, on overhead galleries, as well as climbing the walls and us the audience were effectively cornered by witty, feral teenagers playing drunk and shouting at each other. Nevertheless, the chaos of it was never arbitrarily out to shock, but rather to engage and tune the audience into the vernacular of Road.
The chanting scene in the denouement of the last act ended the production with the entire cast and chorus surrounding the audience and screaming ‘Somehow, a somehow might escape!’ It was oppressive and chilling in an unexpectedly Lord of the Flies kind of way.
The exuberance of the performances and the uncompromising production of a challenging play had the culminating weight of both uplifting and exhausting the audience, as they left seeming somewhat shell-shocked. It was a truly immersive evening of theatre; unpretentious, funny, sad, and brilliantly played.
Words by James Grady