- United Kingdom Theatre Critic
Jim Cartwright’s acclaimed play Road has long been considered one of the greatest representations of a struggling 1980s Britain, where communities banded together to fight against the drudgery and monotony of the often bleak daily grind via the channel of whiling away the midnight hours with drinking, partying and sex. In short, Road marks a turning point in British history, where new cultural resilience gave rise to something greater, more developed and poised to tackle new challenges. The same can be said of the newly renamed Leeds Playhouse, which has now entered its brand new season, and while the old building is currently being refurbished, they’ve taken over one of the old scenery workshops and transformed it into a pop-up theatre space. Minting this new space is the aforementioned Road, directed by Amy Leach.
Road brings us back to 1987, to a street in a Northern community where the residents do indeed while away the hours boozing to cope with a jobless grim reality. Guided by the mysterious Scullery (Joe Alessi), we’re taken through snapshots of the lives of the street’s residents. There are some darkly funny moments, delirious highs, some incredibly harrowing lows, and moments that are prolifically filled with so much bad language that your ears will need washing out afterwards. Amidst the blitzkrieg of C-bombs and late night debauchery, however, we see a community full of hopes, dreams, and the desire to well and truly change things for the better.
Leach’s directorial vision of the play, which presents us with a representational landscape where scenes bleed into one another, breathes fresh life into Cartwright’s text. In recent years, many companies have favoured the promenade approach, where audiences are physically taken to locations in the play to give us a sense of a larger play-world. Here, however, Leach harnesses the intimacy of the Playhouse’s new workshop space and transforms it into a pressure cooker-like environment where the action is beautifully contained within a series of atmospheres that collide to evoke the rich, often sombre tone coursing through Cartwright’s text.
Bringing this action to life is the ensemble, whose members each expertly tap into the complex web of emotions Cartwright paints his characters with, and we’re faced with strong performances that bring us closer to the writer’s perspective and inspire us to relate its relevancy to our current social climate. It would be unjust to single out members of this ensemble; each performer’s conjuration of their respective characters is sensitive and unwavering, and we feel compelled to engage with these representations in all of their detail and infectious energy.
Hayley Grindle’s set design is also striking and refreshingly simple, with her backdrop of domestic architecture perfectly representing a rich tapestry of the ‘make do and mend’ attitudes that were particularly present throughout the 80s. Her design lends itself well to the intimacy of the pop-up theatre space, and perfectly allows us to immerse ourselves in the action whilst having a clear sense of the historical context and environment. Paul Lovett’s lighting design also keeps his lighting design simple, with a consistent number of jaundice-infused washes flooding the stage with stark, immersive lighting that illuminates the action but emphasises the cold and unforgiving social climate that see creeping up on the characters. Mark Melville’s sound design also emphasises this, and we soon feel the aural landscape of the production ominously buttressing the action onstage to great effect.
This production of Road is certainly gripping and engaging, and while some of the harrowing content of the play may not be for all audience members, this piece is well worth immersing yourself in and experiencing. Leeds Playhouse is back, and it’s set the bar high for its upcoming season.
Road is at Leeds Playhouse until 29th September. For more information and tickets visit https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/road