Road – at Leeds Playhouse

Here it is then, the new season at the renamed Leeds Playhouse.

I was so pleased to be able to attend this production as I was at the final performance at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Virgo in me appreciates symmetry. It was not just the bookending of the events which sated my astrological appetite but also the plays themselves were both of the same style, being vignettes from people’s lives relating to the environment in which they live and the problems they face.

Road was written by Jim Cartwright and first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1986. It tells the stories of the residents of a run-down street in the North of England when all hope seems to have been taken away from them in one way or another, and how they deal, or try to deal, with their circumstances.  The play is also the first production staged by the newly formed ensemble company and judging by this performance we have a lot to look forward to over the coming season.

Yet another first is the venue, which is known as The Pop-Up Theatre and situated underneath the main Playhouse Building. It is an intimate space and very basic.  I am sure that if it were a cocktail lounge it would be described as industrial chic, but it is really a bare brick room.  This is no bad thing and it suited this particular play to a tee.

The set is a two storey affair, with the upper tier being the front exterior of the houses on the street and the stage level changing to depict their interiors. The two are linked by scaffolding and a couple of ladders as well as a backstage staircase. It also transforms into a 1980s disco during the interval, with the audience channelling their inner Wham!  Hayley Grindle, the designer, has done a magnificent job on this, as has Paul Lovett, whose lighting cleverly picks out the characters as they begin to act out their stories from the others on stage at the time.

Mark Melville, the sound designer, also deserves praise as the acoustics of the Pop-Up leave a little to be desired and the layout is difficult to work with.  The stage protrudes, with the seats describing a 180 degree angle, which means that some of the actors are, of necessity, facing away from sections of the auditorium whilst delivering their lines. Sitting, as I was, almost at one extremity, it was hard to catch some of the dialogue when looking at the actors’ backs.

Robert Pickavance, Joe Alessi and Susan Twist. All photographs provided by Leeds Playhouse.

The stories were interlinked by the local character Scullery, brilliantly acted by Joe Alessi, who knew all of the residents, some in the biblical sense, and dashed around the set interacting with the characters, briefly describing the back story of some. The constant theme is one of despair and the need to escape from their lot. A soliloquy delivered by an old man – Robert Pickavance – showed how he ‘escaped’ by living in the past; a young man described as a ‘nutter’ did it by fighting. The first act came to an end with a young couple who chose the ultimate method of escape.

Elexi Walker, Jo Mousley and Joe Alessi

If this all sounds depressing, it was, but those scenes were countered by ones of great humour. Oddly for a play written thirty-two years ago, the humour came mainly from the women in the piece. The two girls out on the town, played by Elexi Walker and Jo Mousley, were a treasure and one scene in which a more mature woman (Susan Twist) was trying to seduce a young black man (Lladel Bryant) who she had brought home from the pub, but who was unconscious with drink, was an absolute hoot.

Susan Twist as Helen

The performances were superb all round, including a part of one scene when no one said anything at all.  It was entirely acted out to the playing on a record player of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ by Otis Redding. I have listened to the ‘Otis Blue’ album more times than is probably healthy but have never heard this particular track the way I heard it tonight, and I doubt that I will ever hear it in the same way again. It was a masterpiece.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the director, Amy Leach, and her assistant, Sameena Hussain, for the staging of this work. They utilised the space magnificently by having the actors appearing from all parts of the theatre. Sitting at the end of the row it was a bit disconcerting at first to hear footsteps charging from behind you as the characters were being chased through the auditorium and onto the stage. The use of the two-tier set gave scope for a dynamic production by having the fitter members of the cast scale the scaffolding and ladders rather than exit the stage, reappearing on the top level a little later.  A couple of them executed this manoeuvre with a skill worthy of Louis Smith. They also had the comic timing absolutely spot on, whilst seamlessly mixing in the pathos.

 

Road was a brilliant way to kick off the new season.  Looking at the prospectus and having seen the ensemble cast I have no doubt that there are more superb productions to follow.   I will just put on my best RP voice and make the standard BBC announcement that ‘This play contains scenes which some people may find upsetting. It also deals with adult themes and has scenes of a sexual nature.’

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Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living.  He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds.  He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.

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