Angela Rayner would probably approve of the “Tory scum” slogan scrawled in orange spraypaint on the corrugated iron at the back of Amelia Jane Hankin’s two-storey set. It is a sentiment that pervades Jim Cartwright’s 1986 play, a vision of despair and despondency at the fag-end of Thatcher’s Britain.
Moved from Lancashire to north–east England by artistic director Natalie Ibu in her first production for Northern Stage, it is an unusually structured play, a collage of unrelated monologues and dramas taking place behind the front doors of a street riven by unemployment and blighted by poor prospects. “There’s no jobs and there’s no hope,” says Ike Bennett’s Joey, who has resorted to a starvation diet as the only way to exert control. His plan doesn’t end well.
Violence, drink and neglect are the consequences of the government’s callous economic policy, turning people against each other in a road where even community spirit is laced with aggression. Whether it is the widow going deliriously senile, the young ones hitting the pub or the woman dreaming of sex with a stranger, the mood is of denial and desperation.
The morose atmosphere is momentarily leavened by Michael Hodgson’s Scullery, half emcee, half tramp, as our extravagant narrator, but neither he nor the disco tunes of a Timmy Mallett-style interval DJ can take away the sourness.
This is especially the case in a production that is confined and constrained by the set. Although structurally impressive with its twin-level lineup of front rooms, each as small and squalid as the last, it limits the actors’ options.
Too often on this large stage, it is as though we are peering into a studio theatre, the tone quiet, the pace hesitant, the impact too small. When the action breaks out across the stage and even into the auditorium, it is too great a lurch; less the highs and lows of variety entertainment as characterised by John McGrath in A Good Night Out, more an incongruous mix of delicate and brash, the one seeming to undermine the other.
Road is at Northern Stage, Newcastle, until 30 October.