Review: Gut-wrenching stuff in tales from behind a street's front doors

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Road at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

Swearing, if done with enough conviction and with attention to the rhythms of language, can be a beautiful thing. Which is just as well because in Jim Cartwright’s play, Road, there is a lot of swearing. An awful lot. It paints a true picture of the characters’ situation.

Make no mistake, their situation is bleak. This 1980s Britain, in the hard hit North-West. Thatcher's cuts have bitten deep and characters in this deep dark comedy are permanently out of work, their lives fuelled by drink, bad sex and despair, shot through with occasional brief glimpses of hope.

The play is constructed as a series of sketches, each an expression of life behind the walls of the houses along a street so bare and broken it is known simply as Road. Coronation Street it ain't. Albert square doesn't come close.

The format allows for some fine performances. This brilliant cast squeeze every drop of emotion out of their characters' sad lives, for whom the greatest sadness of all is that they know they are doomed. They are like lost souls on a sinking ship. There’s the Professor, bravely and pointlessly recording snippets of street wisdom by his neighbours, and Jerry (each played by Pete Bagley), mourning his lost past. There’s Molly (Emma Withers), a genteel old lady who swigs vodka from the bottle. There’s Carol (Georgia Kelly), who’s bruised elegy: “Where’s nice - f*****d off; where’s soft – gone hard,” tolls a passing bell. And there's Scullery (Dan Gough), a leering goggle eyed street rat who sees all and judges nothing, and guides us through this mess.

This would be unbearably bleak, and frankly boring, were it not for the sheer energy and conviction of the performances and the lyricism of the writing. Only occasionally did it go a bit too far, as in Joey’s (Pete Meredith) slow suicide scene with Clare (Karen Evans), which like opera went on for too long, though the performance of it was great. Marion’s (Emma Withers) magnificent, drunken showdown with Brian (Steve Brown), which spilled out into the auditorium, brought a round of applause in its own right.

Are things so different now? Go down any city centre on a Saturday night and see. What was missing from this Road was drugs, which would have been there in real time and which bring a different kind of escape. Booze brings all forms of people together, and so this sad, magnificent, tortured, forlorn, beautiful street full of proud, defeated, self-defeating people stuck together because all they had was each other.

Road is a gut wrenching reminder of how close to despair many of us can come, and a warning of what might be yet to come.

* Road runs until Saturday February 4. Visit www.criteriontheatre.co.uk to book.