Denial isn’t only a river in Egypt, it’s a form of optimism. We all know at least one person whose need to look on the bright side gives the impression they’ve been brainwashed in a cult. Toxic positivity – yes, it’s a thing. ‘Live your best life’ gurus like Marissa Peer, Esther Hicks and Anthony Robbins sell millions of books every year; the latter’s seminars are hugely popular, and he fills arenas in the manner of a rock star. Even cuddly beardy Noel Edmonds got in on the act some years ago, writing a book about ‘cosmic ordering’, a concept predicated on the notion that the universe is really a giant version of the Argos catalogue, and you can have what you want if you simply believe it’s going to happen.
Possibly the worst of the bunch is Dr Wayne Dyer, star of popular spirituality documentary ‘The Shift.’ An annoying clever dick, with an answer for everything, Dyer passed away in 2015 but, miraculously, still posts on social media. The man must have crawled through the earth for a Wifi connection.
The Road Less Travelled, by psychiatrist M.Scott Peck, was one of the first spirituality texts to cross over into the bestseller charts. Peck was perceptive enough to see that living in a permanent state of happiness is impossible, and some degree of suffering is a necessary part of the human experience. The book begins with a stark truism – ‘Life is difficult.’ What has all this got to do with Road? One of the characters in Jim Cartwright’s 80’s set drama simply asks why things have to be this tough. ‘It’s like walking through meat in high heels.’ A perfectly reasonable request when you feel life is pulling you under.
Constructed around a series of linked vignettes, Cartwright’s raw account of deprivation and unemployment is seen through the eyes of narrator Scullery, and the occupants of a Lancashire street. First produced at the Royal Court in 1986, Road came to be seen as a seminal portrayal of Thatcher’s ‘other Britain’. Without question, it was the must see drama of the eighties, quickly filmed for the BBC by legendary maverick Alan Clarke. Not long afterwards, it arrived at the Octagon – Cartwright’s home town – in a production that featured poet John Cooper Clarke. Road is now part of the modern classic canon. Is it still relevant? After years of austerity, Brexit, and a global pandemic, Britain is experiencing another collective trauma, in the guise of a cost of living crisis. This Oldham Coliseum revival has arrived at exactly the right time.
To make a successful production, various components are required: text, direction, performance, costume, lighting and set design. One element supports another. In a flawed production, they can work against each other. And that’s the case here. Road has a terrific cast. It also features one of the most uninspired sets I’ve ever seen in a professional stage production. It’s as if designer Foxton (who dropped his Christian name for some unfathomable reason) spent £80 on a pile of fire damaged timber, and lazily tipped it onto the stage. With the actors surrounded by a ring of characterless tat, movement is hindered, tamping down the energy in certain scenes. The result is a production that only hits the high notes in fits and starts.
That’s not to say there aren’t inspired moments. Paula Lane is hilarious as a spurned lover, storming down the street to call out the man who dumped her, and coming across like ‘The Woman in Black’ on steroids. Veteran local actor, William Travis gives a superb, moving monologue as Jerry, a widower who pines for the days when life was kinder.
Loneliness is a recurring motif in this grey world. Claire Storey has several great scenes, including one as a desperate, affection starved older woman: copping off with a drunken soldier, who passes out in her living room, she pretends he feels desire by clumsily moving his limp hands over her body, in the manner of a mad puppeteer.
The finale still feels audacious, because it hinges on a scene of inactivity – two girls and two boys, back from the pub, listening to Otis Redding soulfully sing ‘Try A Little Tenderness.’ The song, as Louise (Zoe Iqbal, a goofy and charming stage presence) observes, is all about the finer things in life. How can a love so pure survive in a world this callous? Watching these characters react is enough, as the music touches something deep inside them. A shame that director Gitika Buttoo loses her nerve, and feels compelled to introduce a lot of busyness, with other characters drifting on, and indulging in some pointless dancing. She even cuts Otis short, which takes the edge off what comes next.
It’s a mixed bag, then. Buttoo’s production feels like a work-in-progress. There are plenty of empty buildings in Oldham: it would be great to see this show return in a different space, and staged again (like the first Royal Court production) in a promenade style. A cast this good shouldn’t be wasted.