Road by Jim Cartwright is an important piece of writing but it is also a fly in amber – for all the clever delineation of characters in a single street in Bolton in the eighties, it has quickly staled to the status of an A-Level set text, and fails to reflect contemporary demographics.

After twenty minutes or so I started to wonder whether being cast with an all Indian company – to reflect the population of a typical Lancashire street of terraces nowadays – might better highlight the characters’ issues and dilemmas, particularly younger characters in search of alcohol and early sexual experience.   Although that might trespass into the East is East territory of Ayub Khan Din.

In John Tiffany‘s self-conscious production some of the staging is effective, some a bit mannered – the glass box rising from the stage is a clever way to change scenes without interrupting the action in Chloe Lamford‘s otherwise bleak brickwork set, but it’s also distractingly like the console of the Tardis. Some of the acting like Mark Hadfield‘s and June Watson‘s is consistently superb, some a bit sketchily broad, with accents that wander the M62 like a fogbound driver unsure whether he’s headed for Liverpool or Hull.

The dialogue is largely verbatim camp Lancastrian banter between characters as their paths cross en route to the pub, the chippy or in very rare cases, work.  In fact there’s an uneasy touch of poverty porn about the production where a well-heeled and well-educated Royal Court audience is watching what’s effectively ‘Benefits Street‘.  But Cartwright presses the pause button repeatedly to allow individual soliloquies which range from teary reflection to almost lyrical street poetry.

Several scenes stand out: Hadfield’s reminiscence about an earlier time when jobs were readily available, sometimes people did two or three, they spent family holidays at Blackpool or on the Isle of Man, and the world felt a kinder place is charming for the containment of his visions, and his contentment with his situation.  Watson’s slightly batty, slightly slatternly older lady preparing for a night out is a joy, and Michelle Fairley‘s one-sided seduction of an incapably drunk, totally mute soldier whose mouth she wipes of vomit before deep kissing him is a piece of scripted brilliance, perfectly performed.

Performance poet Lemn Sissay plays the wastrel narrator Scullery who binds the show together by breaking the fourth wall to offer the audience a few words of guidance, or a drink.  I wanted someone more like a Northern club comedian to bring more warmth to the character and maybe work his charm on what’s undoubtedly a difficult crowd – but his ballet with a shopping trolley is another moment of pure beauty in a grimy world.

Everyone congratulated the 27-year old Cartwright on the originality and inspiration of Road, and it won several well-deserved awards.  However, the scene in the fish and chip shop closely mirrors the Victoria Wood ‘At the Chippy’ sketch which aired in 1985 when she moved from Granada to the BBC.

Road opened in 1986.

until 9 September