Jim Cartwright: a theatrical road less travelled

Cast of the 2017 Royal Court Theatre production of Road by Jim Cartwright (image credit: Sarah Weal)

Tonight (21 July), the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs in London’s Sloane Square begins its revival of Jim Cartwright’s play, Road. This production, directed by John Tiffany and starring the actor, writer and Chancellor of the University of Manchester Lemn Sissay, comes three decades after its world première at the same theatre.

When Road first graced the stage in 1986, British theatre discovered in Cartwright a distinctive and vital new voice. His account of a journey along a derelict street in Lancashire’s post-industrial wasteland on a Friday night contrasted so vividly with the work of prominent Oxbridge-educated playwrights. Led by Scullery, a boozy and piratical master of ceremonies, Road depicts a weekly ritual of inebriated escapism, desperate aspiration and upbeat defiance among Britain’s working class.

The popularity of Road, as well as its resonances with subsequent generational hardships, has persisted. Indeed, in a poll organized by the National Theatre, it was voted the 36th best play of the 20th century.

In 1995, Cartwright made his directorial debut by staging a revival of Road at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. During rehearsals for that production, Language and Culture co-founder Dr Stephen Gregson interviewed the playwright-turned-director for the magazine Plays International. Extracts from the article are reproduced below:

A director’s Road

To put it mildly, Jim Cartwright is an enigma. “I didn’t go to university or anything,” he admits. “I haven’t got a massive vocabulary. I’m not well read. I can’t spell.” He even dares to be politically – or should that be culturally? – incorrect. “My major influence is Elvis. Bruce Lee’s a reference. Confessions of a Window Cleaner is a reference.” Not exactly the stuff of Establishment playwrights.

Born and educated in Farnworth, near Manchester, Cartwright’s theatrical talent was very much fostered by the Welfare State. “I was a working-class lad,” he says. “Soul music I got into. I liked all the things that lads like, I suppose. We had a good drama teacher at school and I did some acting. It excited the hell out of me, it was great.” Enough it seems to have pushed him into an initial career as a jobbing actor. “I was a professional, darling,” he says, tongue in cheek. “But that’s what got me to know the Royal Court existed and that was the place to send new writing.”

His playwriting career began when, egged on by friends, he posted an amorphous collection of scenes to Sloane Square. “I’d done bits of writing, but really for myself. I sent this, well, it wasn’t even a script. Bits of scenes. And they liked it.” An ensuing commission led to his first play, Road, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1986 and subsequently transferred to the main stage. Cartwright easily enjoyed the most impressive debut for a playwright since John Osborne and Look Back in Anger 30 years previously.

In every sense, Cartwright is British theatre’s equivalent of a punk rocker: in the same way that punk challenged the music industry, Cartwright has thrown out all convention on what constitutes a playwright. “How many geniuses have been squashed while we speak?,” he muses. “I’m just doing my own thing and I’ve got my tools that I can work with. Like a lot of working-class artists. Somebody said when punk came out, you just learned three chords and started a band. So, don’t worry that ‘writing land’ is over there and you got to go to university. Express, and express with passion. That’s all that matters.”

Almost 10 years now as a professional writer, he boasts an enviable CV: numerous commissions (including from the National Theatre) and critical acclaim for the international productions of his plays. There has even been a run on Broadway with Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s staging of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, albeit for nine performances. “The critics hated it. I almost imagined they were going to do the cleaning lady next,” he wryly recalls.

But Cartwright is also a pragmatist. It was to Britain’s regional theatre that he turned to hone his craft, under the auspices of Andrew Hay, first at the Bolton Octagon and then at the Bristol Old Vic. Now Cartwright makes his own directorial debut with Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. In doing so he revisits his first play.

Road depicts the events of a single night on an almost derelict street in an unidentified Lancashire town. Scullery, the play’s master of ceremonies, guides the audience in and out of various incidents in this slice of Northern working-class life. Each of the inhabitant has a profound experience to relate: stories of survival in an industrial wasteland and betrayal by an uncaring government.

There is nothing synthetic about Cartwright’s Lancashire: his own background remains his strongest point of reference. “I don’t consciously study it or anything,” he says, refuting the suggestion that the play is a piece of social anthropology. “I don’t make little notes when I get on the bus and all that. It must be just what’s inside, where I come from.”

Nor is this strongly evocative portrayal of an urban community in North West England an overt critique of the Thatcher administration. “It was written in the 1980s but it survives because it’s about human beings.” The play instead embraces the poetry that Cartwright recognizes in the dialect and landscape of Lancashire. “It’s a tradition of Lancashire bloody everything,” he says, with just passion. “It’s beautiful. The old 60s films, black-and-white terraces and cobbles. Ugly, and all. But there’s something attractive about that landscape.”

That said, Road does not indulge in pernicious nostalgia: a spurious romance that transforms former factory hellholes into sanitized working museums. Cartwright, then, is not in the business of peddling Lancashire stereotypes. “I don’t mean that it’s all going to be jolly, let’s have a laugh and look at the Northern people eating chip butties,” he asserts. “I hate that kind of theatre.”

An atmosphere of intimidating disquiet pervades the play, a reminder of the horrors of the past, the squalor of the present and the hopelessness of the future. It is a rollercoaster ride of emotions, as Cartwright makes clear. “At times, it’s going to be like ‘hold onto your hat’, and, at other times, it’s going to be uncomfortable, on the edge.”

In essence, however, Road is a genuine attempt to create a Lancashire night out for a theatre audience. “These little communities, they’re often a wee bit behind the times. The fashions are usually a good few years behind. So, you get more characters in these pubs and discos.”

The Northern social venues that feature in Cartwright’s world are the embodiment of an upbeat mood he is anxious to convey. This affirms the view that Road is overtly a celebration of human endurance. Indeed, Cartwright is particularly riled by the extent to which certain critics have labelled the play as grim. “If you come to see this play, it’s a night out,” he enthuses. It is certainly not his intention to deliver a bleak representation of a downtrodden working class. “The characters might be in the gutter. But, like the old saying, they’re looking at the stars and they enjoy the gutter.”

Road by Jim Cartwright runs at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 9 September 2017. Tickets can be booked via this link.

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