"England's in pieces. England's an old twat in the sea. England's cruel. My town's scuffed out. My people's pale. I'm going to lie out now and burn for all I'm worth." So shouts a character from Road, Jim Cartwright's remarkable play about economically depressed northern England. The show, with ex-Sex Pistol Edward Tudor-Pole and later Ian Dury in leading roles, was an enormous hit in London last year. Now the Remains Theatre Ensemble is staging its American debut.
While many of the characters in Road are flamboyantly antisocial, the 27-year-old playwright himself, in town for the play's opening this Monday, comes across as a soft-spoken guy who's just writing about what he knows: "I live in a very poor northern town and I was on the dole for years," he says, "so I know what it's like to have no money. Making yourself get out of bed in the morning, the rejections, no work--you get that ratty feeling when you have to eat inferior food, wear inferior gear."
The broke and befuddled inhabitants of Road, an anonymous street in Lancashire (so called because the name has fallen off the street sign), convey that "ratty feeling" with heartbreaking accuracy. In a series of vignettes, "Scullery," a streetsmart rogue, introduces the audience to some of the road's denizens as they prepare for a night on the town. A skinhead-turned-Buddhist recounts the joys of street fighting. A middle-aged gentleman irons a tie as he mourns his youth, wondering "how that time could turn into this time." An exhausted housewife describes the disgust she feels for her out-of-work, drunken hulk of a husband. And a young man starves himself to death as an act of protest, saying, "Every piece of me is bruised or gnawed raw. I cracked my spirit against a 25,000-ton marshmallow called 'them.'"
By act two, all the characters are drunk and on the verge of grubby or begrudging sex. One scene, alternately pathetic and hilarious, shows a young woman trying to coax romantic overtures from a literally puking-drunk young soldier. The play concludes with two young couples, inspired by Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," chanting, "Somehow, a somehow, a somehow, might escape."
Escape seems a more likely prospect for Road dwellers than any substantial change of conditions. Cartwright believes the poverty of England's industrial north is having a different effect than previous depressions in Britain: "There's a hopelessness in people. After the war the country was poor, but people still believed things would get better, that it could still be a fair, just country. Now there just doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. There's a real feeling of selfishness--'Look after yourself and fuck everyone else. If you don't make a profit you're not worth bothering with.' Young people have no idea about the 60s. Thatcher's got a hold of people; she sets that greed off in people and they're going for it."
The Playwright's monologues and scenes display a strikingly poetic, deft use of language, so it comes as a surprise that Cartwright considers himself "uneducated," and more influenced by American soul music than by literature. Born to working-class parents, Cartwright left school at an early age and later moved to London when he was 18 to become an actor. The occasional theater role alternated with odd jobs and long periods of unemployment. Finally he returned to his hometown near Lancashire and wrote Road, his first play. "Sitting down to get started is the hardest part," Cartwright muses. "Then I just try to get out of the way and let it all come. I write very quickly."
Cartwright sent his "bits" to the Royal Court Theatre in London, where it was produced under director Simon Curtis in a "promenade" production. The Remains ensemble is following suit, which means audience members should wear comfortable shoes. Although about 80 seats will be available, the promenade format has most of the audience standing throughout the show, down on the performance space. The eight, person cast mingles with the crowd as scenes emerge from every which way. Director Bob Falls remarks that the promenade approach "completely removes the 'fourth wall' and breaks down a lot of boring conventions that we're all used to."
Though the language and setting of Road are specifically British, Falls, for one, feels "we don't have to look too far in our own country to find the same kind of despair. This road could very easily be on the west side or in Uptown, although the faces would not be all white. I don't think Maggie Thatcher's England is that far removed from her brother-in-arms, Reagan's America."
Road opens Monday, June 22, at the Organic Theater, 3319 N. Clark, and runs through August 2. Show times are 8 PM Wednesday-Friday, 6 and 9:30 PM Saturday, and 3 and 7 PM Sunday. Tickets for seats are $14-$17, promenade places go for $10-$12. For information or reservations call 327-5588.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Banks.