Road – Review – Leeds Playhouse Pop-Up Theatre
By Eve Luddington, September 2018
Well, this was a first for me. Never before have I attended a play in the middle of a building site. Ingeniously, Leeds Playhouse (note the reversion from West Yorkshire Playhouse to its original name) has created a 400-seat pop-up theatre in its usual scene-painting and set-making workshop while a multi-million pound development of Arts spaces is constructed around it. Staff are proud of their new theatre and the work they’ve put into it, and they’re excited by this venture. They deserve to be.
The foyer’s exposed breeze block is softened by calm lighting and a welcoming atmosphere. The long, workmanlike auditorium, open to the roof, allows a good view of the stage from every seat. There’s no pretension, no fancy decoration: the focus is firmly on theatrical endeavour. This is a venue rich with possibilities. And so to its first production, performed by the 9-strong ensemble that will be resident for a full season of rich pickings.
Jim Cartwright’s best known play is The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (1992) but the one many theatre practitioners and critics praise most highly is Road, premiered in 1986 when Thatcher was Prime Minister and unemployment was 3 million. Without any attempt at political analysis, it’s an excoriating indictment of social inequality. The causes of poverty and despair may be different in 2018, but their effect is tragically as relevant today as it was in 1986 – and the North-South divide is, perhaps, starker than it was 30 years ago.
Rum-swilling, promiscuous Scullery (Joe Alessi) is our unlikely narrator, taking us on a Friday night tour of one road in a depressed Northern town. It’s just ‘road’ now: the rest of the name dropped off the street sign long ago.
‘Wid’ your night yous chose to come and see us. Wid’ our night as usual we’s all getting ready and turning out for a drink. THIS IS OUR ROAD!’ In this production, director Amy Leach, designer Hayley Grindle and the excellent ensemble of Northern actors make it the audience’s road too.
We’re on one side of a shabby two-storey street propped up at each end by scaffolding, watching Scullery and the neighbours he introduces. They’re on street corners, in living rooms and kitchens, sometimes coming down the gangways, occasionally sitting on audience laps.
Abandoned by mainstream society, these people have few economic or social prospects. Some of them fill their time with booze and sex, some with memories. There’s little hope for them of escape from their crushing circumstances: ‘It’s a long fuckin’ life innit,’ say a couple of characters.
What saves the play from total bleakness is the language, rhythm and structure of the piece. That, and the great Northern spirit shared by the characters: they are crude, raucous and foul-mouthed but their speech has the rhythms of poetry.
It’s a sharp, brutally sad and often funny piece, not for all tastes: some of the audience left in the interval, but those who stayed were richly rewarded with a visceral performance by a highly committed ensemble. They worked beautifully together and with the audience.
‘Each new scene smashes into the previous one and does something completely unexpected and takes the audience somewhere completely different emotionally,’ says director, Leach.
So the aggression of one scene is followed by quiet poignancy in another. And even within scenes, the mercury hits emotional highs and lows. I think some of the actors have yet to grow into their characters but the overall standard of acting is superb.
Joe Alessi’s Scullery was often suitably ‘in yer face’ as our ‘tour guide’ while always sensitive to the action he was introducing and observing, but I felt he could have packed a harder punch at times. Prof is an interesting character who intended an anthropological study of the street before he lost his wife, family, half his stomach and all his ambition, to drink. Now he stumbles about, carrying the box in which he keeps all his records. Robert Pickavance’s portrayal is affecting but the physical twitches seemed acted rather than intrinsic to the character.
Elexi Walker’s performance is magnetic: every emotion radiates through her body and face, whether she’s tarted up and parading as Dor or displaying bravado as quick-tempered, complex Carol. Darren Kuppan plays Skin’s obsession with exercise to a tee – ‘You’ve gotta be fit to fight’ – and captures, too, the Buddhist-leaning skinhead’s innocence. Susan Twist tugs the heartstrings with her portrayal of Molly, making up her face to prepare for a night out she won’t be having and pouring milk from the cat’s saucer into her tea. As Helen, she got me swallowing my laughter as I realised the pathos of a middle-aged lonely woman trying to seduce a paralytic soldier (played with beautifully dead eyes and limp body by Lladel Bryant).
The heart of the play is revealed at the end of Act One in a scene which shook me to the core. Joey and Clare are youngsters who, having lost their jobs have no outlet for their spark and energy. Joey has taken to his bed, refusing all food and drink. Clare joins him because she has nothing else to do, and they starve themselves to ‘see what will take place in our heads.’
Tessa Parr’s Clare, played with gentle power, is a lost, delicate soul. Dan Parr as Joey lives and breathes the frustrations, anger and despair of a young man who seeks meaning in a world which has abandoned him. The sombre mood of this tragic scene is broken by Scullery, inviting the audience to a drink in the bar and DJ Bisto walking down the gangways, showering the audience with leaflets advertising his disco.
“Engrossing and thought-provoking”
The insertion of an actual disco, during the interval, is theatrical genius. Enthusastic Lladel Bryant as DJ Bisto exudes infectious energy. Some of the characters strut their stuff and flirt, innocently or not, with people who’ve remained in the auditorium. Others are lured into joining the dance on their way back from the bar. By the end of the interval on the night I attended most of the audience were dancing in their seats if not on the floor.
The play resumes in the early hours after the disco. Tartish Dor and Lane (Jo Mousley) buy chips to mop up the liquid and a booze-fuelled night on the road continues with its heady highs and dark lows.
Left out of the ‘fun’ is Valerie. She’s waiting for the husband who’s drinking away their benefits. Her rage and disappointment are touchingly embodied by Jo Mousley. ‘I hate him now. Can we not have before again? Can we not?’
We may be appalled by the characters’ existence and behaviour, but we’re desperate for their survival – including that of the husband we never meet whose life is ‘the human waste of the land.’
The final scene begins with four youngsters downing beer and wine (little niggle: I wish their booze hadn’t so evidently been water). Then, one of them puts on soul music. They’re caught by the rhythm and the message of ‘Try a little tenderness’. It’s something of a transformational moment. Perhaps, perhaps, these four are kindling a flicker of hope.
If this engrossing and thought-provoking production of Road represents the standard audiences can expect in Leeds’ pop-up theatre, we’re in for many more theatrical treats from this ensemble and their directors this season. I loved it.