You will never think of actors as spoilt attention-seeking needy up-themselves luvvies ever again if you have the good sense and good fortune to see the play Roadkill on until November 20th at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. I saw it – experienced it – on Saturday night and the visceral impact has not left me. Nor will it for some time. God help the people acting it out night after night.
Ideally you would come to this play as I did – fairly ignorant of the content and trusting of the friend who bought the tickets – and thereby less armoured against the shocks. But as most normal people prefer more of a clue about what they’re about to see, here goes…
Roadkill shows the trafficking, sexual enslavement and brutalising of a young Nigerian girl, Adeola, tricked to London by a supposedly benign “auntie” figure. The play begins onboard a bus outside the theatre as two last minute passengers find their seats. As we drive towards Canning Town, the bright lively innocent Nigerian girl chatters, squeals with excitement at the dowdy cityscape and preens in her newly acquired Londoner status. We leave the bus at a terrace of condemned houses, and enter the only one still habitable – Adeola’s new home.
Inside she is renamed Mary. Then the home becomes her prison and torture chamber. We, the small audience, share the cramped rooms upstairs and down with her and her visitors as she suffers hell on earth. Which sounds grim. And it is. Especially so close, so intimate, so sweat-soaked and in-your-face that nausea, revulsion and a strong impulse to crush one particular character’s nose with a sudden elbow to the face as he passes milimetres away, are understandable.
However, this is not a gratuitous shockfest. Two aspects lift it much higher. The clever direction uses the space and some very ingenious projected images to convey the monotony of the brutality without it becoming monotonous and allowing the audience to become desensitized. There are also lines that are not crossed. At certain points I anticipated revelations or actions with a sick feeling in my stomach, only for my expectations to be repeatedly confounded.
Can’t reveal more for fear of giving too much away to a potential audience member, except to say that Roadkill is not about how all men are bad, weak or selfish. Neither is it an exploration of prostitution, though selling sex and the comforting delusions that ease customers’ consciences are part of it.
This is based on the reality of violent sexual enslavement of women in Europe. Fiction based on extensive research by the award-winning play’s originator and director Cora Bissett, with women who have experienced it and are trying to prevent it. Some were in the audience on Saturday night.
Mercy Ojelade plays the only just teenage Adeola/Mary. I was in awe of the physical and emotional journey she has to make on the nights when there are two shows. Fresh, funny, guileless and sassy before her exhausting descent into hell – only to have reinvent herself as the convincing child for the next bunch of voyeurs. I witnessed her second punishing performance on Saturday. She was utterly convincing. (She’s interviewed about having a career in acting here.)
Adura Onashile plays Martha, the procurer/madame/boss of the squalid prison – gentle, fierce, seductive, scary, scared.
plays various male roles – the good, the very very bad and the very ugly – again utterly convincing physical performance to the extent that some audience members had not quite grasped that all the male parts were played by only one man.
But why on earth would any actor want to steep themselves in something so unpleasant, so harrowing, so draining? Well, OK, money. But also because it’s a wonderful, powerful and important play that if you live anywhere near east London YOU MUST SEE. Or else catch it on tour somewhere else. Picket the theatre for extra shows if it’s sold out.
As I resisted the urge to look away during Saturday night’s performance, I knew that this was what theatre was all about – intimately physical, mental and emotional experience impossible to replicate anywhere else. (Except in life – unfortunately given the subject matter in this case.) You’ll have plenty of opportunity to sit like a vegetable in a cinema or in front of the television in future – but don’t miss your chance to feel something much more.
You’ll want a drink afterwards. Luckily there’s decent bar at the Theatre Royal – best theatre bar I can remember being in. And you’d never know who might be plonked down beside you having a drink too. Like the not-at-all-scruffy director Cora Bissett, for instance. (The play’s text was by Stef Smith.) Could my night have been any better? I think not. And I hereby declare that my opinion of this searingly good play was not at all influenced by Cora buying me a pint. It’s just evidence that she’s generous as well as daringly inventive and talented. Or it could be a Scottish thing – the sharing impulse. (She does other stuff too – writes, acts, plays in bands, sings – details here.)
If you want more detail about Roadkill – you can google the reviews. The Sunday Times gave it four stars at the weekend. Lyn Gardner in the Guardian said of its Edinburgh run that “it doesn’t feel as if this is just a play” . And of course it isn’t – which is why Cora urges you to find out more from or donate to these groups that help children who have been or are at risk of being trafficked: