Arts University Bournemouth [AUB]    Ocean Room Theatre, Pavilion Dance South West, Bournemouth

  Caroline Burr    18 February  2023

Watching an AUB production is always an interesting experience, as I find they explore important themes, which are often edgy and thought provoking. This play – Road by Jim Cartwright – is no exception.

Set in an impoverished Northern working-class area in 1986 during the Thatcher administration, it depicts a road where the audience are invited to examine the lives of the occupants of the various houses. This was a time of high unemployment, so the play attempts to convey the despair and hopelessness felt by the various characters through a series of vignettes and monologues. This presents a lot of challenges for both actors and the director.

The gritty themes of the play need to be contrasted with humour to avoid a dismal couple of hours for the audience, and although there is great deal of humour in the play, it was not brought out strongly enough in this production. For instance, the scene where a young woman tries to seduce a soldier could be hilarious, but it came across as very sad and desperate. However, there was a nice touch when the pub was renamed from Bell Inn to the Bell End!

There were bold attempts to immerse the audience, including the narrator Scullery attempting to lead a sing along, but none of them really worked for me. This production was staged in traverse with the audience on two sides. However, this presented some problems to the actors who sometimes found themselves with their backs to half the audience and meant that many scenes were played in profile to overcome this. An area above the raked seating on one side was also used, but this meant that audience members had to look behind them or miss the action.

Several of the monologues were very well delivered, notably the abused wife Valerie played by Nora Dahlqvist and Brandon Rabie as the old timer reminiscing about holidays in Blackpool. He looked decades older than he is, which was a tribute to the make-up team, but I felt that the standout performance was by Jake Draper as Skin Lad. He was totally believable as the violent, fitness fanatic who turns to Buddhism. He had so much energy and aggression, but also used light and shade to good effect. This was a powerful performance and Jake has great stage presence.

The cast made a good stab at Northern accents, but this along with some very quietly spoken sections made the dialogue hard to follow at times. However, the nightclub scene worked well in Act 1. It was very well choreographed and enhanced by the excellent lighting design and choice of music. The costumes and make-up were also very good – puff ball dresses and pink eye shadow – I remember it well! A couple of small points – some of the wigs needed to be of better quality, as they detracted from, rather than enhanced the 80s’ look, and Valerie’s bruises needed to be more convincing.

Strong performances were also evident in the last scene with all four actors switching from a drunken after party to sharing their inner feelings about the bleak lives they lead, all of them doing justice to the powerful monologues. I particularly liked the contrast between the two girls, one who copes by being feisty, whilst the other seems to try to enjoy the small things in life.

This meant that the play ended on a very poignant note indeed.

I felt that the confidence of the actors and the scenes grew stronger as the play progressed. This is a very difficult piece to pull off, and AUB should feel proud that they met many of the challenges. We were supposed to feel uncomfortable, and we did, so the objectives of the playwright and director David O’Shea were achieved, and this made for a lively discussion after the show!