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Road Review: Uncompromising and Empathetic

Review by: Nadia Ribot-Smith

Road by Open Theatre played for the first time tonight at stage@leeds. Written by Jim Cartwright, it follows the lives of various inhabitants occupying a working-class area of Lancashire during Margret Thatcher’s England.

As the lights dim and the audience is plunged into darkness, the soft familiar sounds of Judy Garlands ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ ring out over the speakers. We sit for a moment, long enough for our eyes to adjust when the strike of a match draws our attention to the left, illuminating the face of Scullery (Harry Taylor) in its soft warm glow. As he addresses the audience, daring them to speculate as to what might follow, Taylor’s performance is excellent. His version of Sculley is cheeky and self-aware. Worldly, but not bitter, he retains a sense of fun that is essential as he leads us through the lives of those living along the road.

All photos taken by Tom Gibson

The characters we visit are numerous and varied in their experiences, from neglected daughters (Isabella Fletcher, Ellie Paige) cycling through abusive relationships to an old man (Matthew Morton) lamenting the condition of his England. The variety of perspectives is essential to delivering the overall message of the play. There’s depictions of generational trauma and toxic family cycles, made all the more ominous by an effective use of lighting as yellow oranges, reminiscent of candlelight, are employed sensitively throughout.

There are a number of standout scenes. Owen Saunders stuns in a particularly challenging monologue detailing a man's misinformed spiritual enlightenment. There’s complexity and depth in his bravado, an embodiment as cocky as it is endearing. Zac Brady similarly shines in his performance of a young man battling depression and does a fantastic job of portraying the circling distress of someone grappling with the futility of his circumstance. His performance expertly guides through varying emotions. From rage to fury, disillusionment to despair, he perfectly highlights the wretched waste of a generation of failed youth. This scene provides an effective contrast to one performed by Eva Lafontan and George Kinniburgh. Depicting a middle-aged woman trying to seduce a drunk and dissociated soldier, Lafontans delivery and tender performance highlights again the violence enacted by a society content to let a generation slip through the cracks. Her quiet panic as she tries to carry out the motions of a passionate loving romance, paired with the subtle facial reactions of Kinniburgh combine wonderfully to humanise a duo which may easily have come across as the brunt of a joke.

Road’s use of staging benefits from an inventive and engaging design. However, at times it felt inconsistent with its 80s terraced houses setting. By mainly locating each character in the centre of the stage, Road can sometimes play like a series of strong, individual monologues rather than a tour through a neglected town. However, this equally highlights the consistent isolation emphasised in Cartwright’s script and provides a fresh take by positing their experiences as being crucial in and of themselves.

Overall, Road is an excellent play which succeeds in meticulously capturing a crucial moment of England’s history. Whilst meaningfully specific in its story, it speaks on issues of social class still pertinent to our modern day. As we see the characters struggling to capitalise on the cards they’ve been dealt, solid performances provide a levity necessary to temper the bold, unfettered criticism towards an unforgiving social landscape. Despite the final message of hope, the production articulates Cartwright’s frustration in an uncompromising and empathetic manner, resulting in a final product which stands as a clear testament to the thought and attention invested by the whole team.

Road is playing tonight 04/03/2022 and tomorrow 05/03/2022 at stage@leeds. Tickets are currently sold out but may become available via this link.

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