THEATRE / Bulletins from a class war: Paul Taylor on The Queen and I and Road in a double-bill at the Royal Court, and T W Robertson's Caste at BAC

There can be few actresses who have had the privilege of playing, in the one day, both a busty, sex- starved, working-class blonde whose squaddie pick-up is so plastered he pukes over his pie and chips, and Her Majesty the Queen of England. On Saturday, this honour went to the wonderful Pam Ferris in Max Stafford-Clark's double bill at the Royal Court of Jim Cartwright's Road (1986) and Sue Townsend's stage version of her best-selling novel The Queen and I.

It sounds a piquant pairing. The one work is a reeking, in-yer-face, intermittently lyrical guided tour of a derelict Lancastrian street, full of unemployed folk who are only a drink or a screw away from despair and sometimes much nearer than that. The other imagines a republican government dispatching the deposed Windsors to an environment only marginally more salubrious - a hell-hole of a Midlands council estate which functions, like the heath in King Lear, as the place where reduced royalty comes to understand the need for social justice.

In practice, though, there are problems with the coupling. It must, for a start, have been a ticklish business bringing The Queen and I more in line with the much darker vision of Road. Townsend's fine novel allows itself the escape clause that the whole thing has just been the Queen's nightmare on the night of the 1992 elections.

In the play, we are to take it that the deposition is not a fantasy and the piece ends with the Queen - now radicalised - broadcasting an alternative Christmas speech from the heart of the estate - a speech about wasted potential and the need for action which has become a great deal more stirring and heartfelt, both in the writing and the delivery, since this stage version was unveiled at the Leicester Haymarket.

Once you remove the fantasy- frame, however, real political questions arise. For example, what has the republican government, about which we hear virtually nothing, been up to since the election? The play carries on as though, except for the dramatic relocation of the Windsors, everything is quite unchanged. But how could that be? Indeed, seeing the Cartwright and the Townsend in tandem has the effect of alerting you to the evasive vagueness of the political context in both.

The plight of the people in Road seems to have pushed them beyond politics to a more existential despair. 'What the fuck's it all about? . . . They rush you from cradle to grave. But now we've come to a standstill, no job, no hope, you've got to ask the question. You've got to ask. And it does you fucking good, too.' So says the young man, Joey (Pearce Quigley) who takes to his bed and starves himself to death.

In The Queen and I, it's Prince Philip who responds to redundancy by refusing to get up. Most of the others, though, cope pluckily with their new lot and, with the Queen motivating and spearheading the group of women who decide to stand up to the youths who are terrorising the estate, you might even get the impression that what the working classes really need is an on-site Windsor to give them lessons in initiative.

The cast, which is the same in both, perform minor miracles of versatility, though Stafford-Clark's production of Road suggests that the play works better in the way it was originally staged - as a promenade piece, uncomfortably forcing you out of the them / us relationship to the material that, as a sedentary spectator, it's easy to assume.

Over at BAC at the moment, a member of the undeserving can actually be seen, in the shape of the drunken, self-deceiving wastrel father in Caste, T W Robertson's 1867 play about the class conflicts that arise when a toff soldier insists on following his heart and marrying a low-born dancer. A radical piece for its time, it now makes for an enjoyable, if decidedly thin, theatrical

experience.

The new multiracial Ensemble Theatre Company mischievously allot two of the three nob roles to black actors which gives the proceedings an intriguing twist. The performances are so good all round that one looks forward to seeing the company tackling stronger material.

'The Queen and I' and 'Road' continue at the Royal Court (Box office: 071-730 2652); 'Caste' at BAC (Box office: 071-223 6557)

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