Streets ahead

A timely revival of Jim Cartwright’s 1986 play Road shows a community let down by the political system

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Richard J Fletcher admits that he has landed the plum role in Oldham Coliseum’s new production of Road. Not only does the rest of the cast have to switch between numerous characters while he takes on the single role of the narrator, he also gets to begin each performance, pint in hand, in the pub opposite.

“I know – it’s a hard life, isn’t?” says the actor. “The idea is that the play starts before the audience have even taken their seats. They can meet me in the pub and from there I will lead them on a journey back to the 1980s.”

Fletcher is best known to Coliseum audiences for his regular stints as the Dame in the venue’s ever-popular panto. That experience should serve him well in this immersive production of Cartwright’s politically charged piece, which takes theatre-goers inside the homes of residents on one Lancashire street.

First performed in 1986, it laid bare the impact of Thatcher’s Britain on ordinary families and showed a community scarred by unemployment, broken promises and loss of hope.

The play, which was almost instantly hailed a classic, went on to win a trophy cabinet full of awards and, almost four decades on, Fletcher believes it has lost none of its relevance.

“I saw it for the first time as a 17 year old when I was studying for a BTEC in performing arts and it had a real impact,” he says. “There is a rawness to it and while the language is best described as blue, it is also incredibly poetic.

“It speaks very much of the 1980s but there is absolutely nothing dated about Jim Cartwright’s script or his ideas. As soon as we started rehearsals it felt like the same groundbreaking piece it was when it premiered.”

As the exuberant (and half-cut) narrator Scullery, it is Fletcher who introduces each of the residents. During successive monologues we meet a woman whose only pleasure in life comes from dreaming of sex with a stranger, youngsters who can no longer see beyond the next night out on the lash and a widow drifting downwards into the grips of senility.

In Cartwright’s hands these are more than two-dimensional stereotypes. Together they paint a rich portrait of a community which has been let down and who at its darkest ebb have begun to turn on each other.

Director Gitika Buttoo says: “With the cost of living rising significantly and where we find ourselves as a nation politically and socially this timely classic captures the grim but true reality of what happens when the system has failed.”

That’s not to say the production, which also stars Paula Lane (Coronation Street) and Will Travis (This is England), is without lighter moments. Many of them come courtesy of Scullery and the obligatory 1980s soundtrack also provides a little welcome nostalgia.

“There is also some snogging,” adds Fletcher. “In fact, this is the first time I have worked with an intimacy director. You need a lot of trust between the cast members for a production like this and it was a great experience. We now have two versions – plan A and plan B in case one of us gets a cold sore. Not romantic I know, but that’s real life.”

Very much like the play itself.

Road is at Oldham Coliseum Theatre, until 1 Oct (

Photo: Left to right: Alyuce Liburd, Richard J Fletcher and Zoe Iqbal in rehearsals for Jim Cartwright’s Road (Chris Payne Photography)

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