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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

John Tiffany directs Jim Cartwright’s Road at the Royal Court over thirty years since its 1986 debut there. Lit by Lee Curran, Chloe Lamford’s set aptly takes on borderlands, abetted by Gareth Fry’s sounds, songs split by the occasional siren. Till September 9th.


Over thirty years since its 1986 promenade debut at the Royal Court this more boxed-in production directed by John Tiffany of Jim Cartwright’s Road returns to find a country in the same case. To a naturalistic brickwork backdrop Lemm Sissay’s Scullery freewheels himself on to narrate the Road with the broken name as Chloe Lamford’s set pops up a glass neon cage where bleak and bleakly funny interiors quick-change a quick-step to despair and part out of it. Sissay wheels himself on with a whirling shopping trolley to the classic signature of the evening, Swan Lake. So Billy Elliott’s happened in between, if from a different north. Despair and now division are palpably back.


Lit by Lee Curran’s double world lighting Lamford’s verismo aptly takes on the borderlands of dream or nightmare, abetted by Gareth Fry’s sounds, songs split by the occasional siren.


One evening spends itself into dawn where some characters recur, others flit and flirt once and at the climax of the first half finds a different time signature. Hallucinated on starvation, Shane Zaza’s Joey joined by his reluctant then willing girlfriend Clare Faye Marsay’s pained recognition that she loves him more than the life she vainly exhorts him to, because she’s seen the same vision. They lie in despair make love and starve. Cartwright’s language intensely poetic reaches an apogee here. Joey’s life dissolves as ‘life dissolves like Sterident.’ It’s the perfect analogue to Cartwright’s language, hyperbolic, hallucinated and still an open accusation: ‘I feel like England’s forcing the brain out me head. … Every piece of me is bruised or gnawed raw, if you could see it, my heart’s like an elbow.’


It’s the most devastated haunted scene of all. But then Mike Noble’s Skin-Lad with his visceral almost Berkoffian celebration of violence, enjoys an epiphany of another kind, a motif that returns at the end. Suddenly the Dharma and Buddhist way of peace presents itself. He transforms and Tai Chi motions set up here echo through to the end too, a kind of backwash to break-dancing elsewhere.


That’s just one of the pop-up neon cages, starting with June Watson’s Molly, singer for a half-bottle of rum, snaffling the cat’s milk for a last tea, recalling her glam war days. Watson’s memorable in her mischievous edge bouncing off Sissay’s scrimping Scullery as he narrates the edge of night unravelling for couples – including a mother-daughter rivalry (the ever-morphing Michelle Fairley and Faye Marsay’s Louise) – out on the tiles for drinks, pick-ups with the same men and back for sex. Fairley as mother Helen and vamp Marion blasts her way through anger and onto a squaddie whose drunken vomiting over pie and chips isn’t enough to put her off. It dissolves though into a sudden realisation of his youth, and another of Cartwright’s transformations.


There’s a counterpoint of regret for the past in Mark Hadfield’s gentle Brian, with his sad lament for a country of full employment where ‘we all felt special but safe at the same time’, and a richly-etched spat of him as sexist pick-up and later pig-husband to Fairley’s Brenda.


There’s hope too, as the narrative pushes two duos whose characters finally strand together in a double date: Dan Parr’s Brink, Mike Noble’s quiet Eddie with Faye Marsay’s Louise and Liz White’s Carol, daughter of Helen, as bolshie as her mother, angrily challenging the men every time an awkward move’s made. Eddie and Brink propose a cathartic solution to everything inducing that same numinous sense of invoking visions that ended with death. This doesn’t, though starting with ‘life slides down but never drops’ as Eddie reflects in free association: ‘my people scoured out’… I wanted cowboy but am cattle’ and encouraging the women to try it. There’s a kind of benediction in Tai Chi to Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ the tentative yes to the shuddering no earlier.


It’s an exemplary revival, with uniformly memorable performances; even if Fairley (particularly) Hadfield and Watson with Sissay enjoy one or several memorable parts, Zaza’s and Marsay’s long duetting to oblivion is the most riveting scene.


Cartwright refuses to judge directly, though his obliquity writes deprivation and abandonment in invisible ink that won’t fade. That’s because it avoids topical politics to keep it contemporary, pointing up by sheer transparency what we, not Cartwright must do about it if the cycle’s to be broken.