I’ve written about this before and now I’m writing about it again: I’m a firm believer in Rupert Goold’s statement that the director’s job is to cover up the bad bits in the text [links to paid content]. This is exactly what John Tiffany doesn’t do. If anything, his direction exacerbates the weaker parts of Jim Cartwright’s play. I kind of like to measure direction by gaging how well the director has ‘covered up the bad bits’, especially when it comes to modern plays/new writing.
There are some scenes in this production of Road that feel really focussed and sharp. A scene in Joey’s bedroom between Clare (Faye Marsay) and Joey (Shane Zaza). Michelle Fairley trying to get off with a drunk soldier (Mike Noble) is sort of sexy and also absolutely hilarious. Scullery (Lemn Sissay) dancing to Swan Lake with a shopping trolley. Four young people listening to soul and screaming out their feelings.
Throughout the play, as Scullery guides the audience down the road, through different scenes, the uses of music feel like the best bits. But there are also loads of dud scenes that, thanks to the structure, could easily be cut. It’s Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner on stage. Lots of sort scenes with similar themes and people, but characters that are (mostly) completely separate from each other. Although some scenes are fucking fantastic, the overarching structure struck me as uninspired. The separateness of the scenes is so stark that it could almost be better suited to screen than stage.
It could almost be better suited to screen than stage: I often found myself wishing I could fastforward through one scene that I didn’t like so I could see the next. It’s essentially Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, and feels just as dated (but a bit less RP).
I’m not 100% sure if it’s Cartwright’s writing or Tiffany’s direction but some scenes feel too short, others feel too long. This production of the play, running at two and a half hours, could easily be cut to ninety minutes and have the same impact – perhaps even more.
Then there’s the set. It’s the brick walls of the road, or maybe the brick front of a boarded-up house. Which is fine. In some ways it feels like a sham version of the Almeida’s brick back wall, but whatever. Then there’s a box/room that rises out the floor; the walls are electric glass, so they can go instantly from opaque to transparent. The roof of the box is the stage floor: when the box is raised, this higher level is used to great comic effect (mostly via the ladder the actors use to get up).
But the actual box itself, with the glass walls (or mirrors when the walls are opaque) doesn’t work. Why are some scenes set in a borderline naturalistic way and some scenes are contained within a glass box? Why are some scenes portrayed as more naturalistic than others? What decides how these scenes are shown? It seems to me that the only logic that decides what is in the box and what is framed by the brick back wall is what means we get fewest of the awkward scene transitions where actors pretend to walk busily down the road holding props. The box fails to draw out/make sense of/do anything for the slightly surrealistic bits of Cartwright’s writing, although it does make bits that I don’t feel are meant to be surrealistic feel surreal.
The brick wall is accompanied by a broken off sign, reading __________ ROAD, highlighting what you can read on Wikipedia: this play is set on an unnamed northern road. This feels like a gratuitous touch and gives the whole set (minus the electric glass) the air of a school play.
I think a lot of the problems, for me, stem from Tiffany’s desire to stage it like ‘a classic piece of European theatre’. Swapping the promenade staging of the original production for this proscenium arch version doesn’t do the play any favours.
So. I wasn’t really a fan. But, I’ve just read this back and realised that it made it seem like I hated it. I didn’t hate it. I really enjoyed the second half. There were some great scene. I don’t mean to underestimate the political and social significance of this play, btw. So many parts were well-written, well-acted, etc. But it wasn’t good enough to make me want to see it again.
Photo of Mike Noble (Eddie/Skin-Lad) and Michelle Fairley (Helen/Marion/Brenda) by JOHAN PERSSON