5 minutes with Michelle Fairley: "Being on stage scares the sh*t out of me"

The actor talks to us about working on Jim Cartwright’s seminal work about an unnamed Northern town, and its return to the Royal Court

© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Directed by John Tiffany, Road was Jim Cartwright's first play, about a group of people who live on the same road in a working class area of Lancashire during Margaret Thatcher's government.

We sat down with star Michelle Fairley to get an insight into the production.

I was completely shocked that I was considered to be in the piece. I didn’t see the original but I’m friendly with people in the production and I’ve worked at the Court. Everyone knows about Road. Everyone knows about its place within the history of theatre because it was a seminal play, it changed the way productions were done, especially at the Court with its sixty-year history. It gave voice to characters who didn’t have voices before. These people were actively fighting, living their lives – meaty and full of life and pain and joy and sadness. It’s so visceral – they bleed. The piece is fascinating and beautifully written. Things jump out at you every time you read it.

The rehearsal process has been brilliant, we’ve had five weeks which has been fantastic, very physical – John Tiffany has brought in a movement director called Jonathan [Watkins], who used to be in the Royal Ballet. He let us experiment with different movements and get an energy flow within the piece as well; using us to push the piece forward – in the scene changes for example.

I love working with John. He has a fantastic trust with his actors. He allows you to experiment, use your own internal judgement system, he’s always open to discussion, trying things. He creates a safe – though I don’t mean cosy – nurturing environment where people feel like they can do anything. He has amazing taste and a great sense of humour as well.

The play still resonates massively today, particularly with what’s going on in the country. There’s a juxtaposition between what happened in the 1980s under Thatcher and what is happening now, after years and years of so-called Labour government, and now back to a Conservative government. Given what happened last year with the vote on the EU, particularly who voted and where that vote came from, as well as what's happening with Labour today with Corbyn, with Theresa May, it still resonates. So the play itself still has the power to shock you.

There’s a lot of anger there. These characters, they’re full of dignity even though their situations are not easy – they find a way to get through life, even if that’s creating a new world for yourself or getting completely plastered. You can either block out the pain and the anger, or give way and express it. So it’s totally about the characters that Jim has created, these are life-affirming, intelligent human beings. There was incredible wealth there, it may not necessarily be monetary wealth but it’s other things – values, qualities within your own person.

It’s the people who work at the Royal Court who keep me coming back. It’s their taste in plays, and writers, and the political landscape – I’ve been fortunate enough to work in four productions and work there since the eighties. I’ve worked with directors like Peter Gill who have been here since the sixties. From Max [Stafford-Clark] through to Vicky [Featherstone] I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been involved in the Court every decade.

It scares the shit out of me, to be involved with an amazing piece of theatre with a fantastic cast and wonderful director.

Road runs at the Royal Court until 9 September.