On the Road

Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton, in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

On the Road                                                                           

by Bill Hartley

Last Saturday, a friend and I went to the Pop Up theatre at the Leeds Playhouse to see a revival of Jim Cartwright’s play Road, which originally appeared in 1986. We sat down amidst a largely middle class audience: the working classes evidently have better things to do on a Saturday night in Leeds than to see themselves depicted on stage. For about two hours, we were treated to an unceasing festival of misery as the able and energetic cast went through a series of vignettes depicting despairing, hopeless, pathetic people, too drunk to even have sex.

We should have read the reviews first. Use of phrases such as ‘a simmering undercurrent of rage’ is a giveaway. More of the same followed: this ‘searing play’ about the misery inflicted by the brutal Thatcher regime is as ‘relevant in today’s austerity Britain as it was thirty years ago’. My friend and I, who were both around at the time that Cartwright’s play was first aired, shared a sense of bewilderment and a stiff gin during the interval. Neither of us remembered things the way that Cartwright did.

We were never told how the individuals depicted got themselves into this dismal situation. The playwright assumed that the audience would just accept it as given. No reference to a mine or a mill closing, no memory of recent prosperity snatched away by the policies of an uncaring government. It was as if the residents of Road were trapped permanently in this hell and we the audience must accept that the government was responsible. The unremitting squalor depicted was reminiscent of Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.

Full marks, however, to the set designer; her creation gave the cast an opportunity to undertake some physical as well as verbal gymnastics across the multi-level layout. Similarly, I couldn’t fault the performers for what they did with the script, though it must have been hard. One critic referred to the ‘inventive’ use of language. Swearing can be effective or funny but it does require imagination. Simply piling on bad language repetitively means that the impact is lost.

A visitor from overseas watching this play might have left the theatre thinking that state aid is as essential as an umbilical and that this is how the working class will inevitably behave if the government pulls the plug on state services.

Incidentally, Jim Cartwright is characterised by the British Council as a ‘northern realist playwright’, so presumably we’re exporting this stuff. Foreign investors beware. Presumably resilience in adversity, an ability to maintain some dignity and to view authority with contempt doesn’t make for good drama. It used to though. Compare Cartwright’s view with that of Alan Sillitoe in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, set a generation earlier. Sillitoes’s hero Arthur Seaton would have despised the wretches in Road. He would have made virtues out of grim self-reliance, personal initiative and a willingness to treat government and the boss class with disdain. But in Cartwright’s world, things have gone wrong for these people because we have the wrong kind of government.

Those behind the revival of this play aimed to hold up a mirror showing lives blighted by austerity. We were meant to come away with a conviction that the bad old days are back. There was however a different form of theatre to be seen a short distance away. As we left the theatre, the working classes were thronging the streets. They were spilling out of cocktail bars, being moved on by policemen, or treated in situ by ambulance crews. If there was austerity gripping Leeds, it must have been on a different road.

William Hartley is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service

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