The latest revival of John Godber’s 1992 play April in Paris has been on a lengthy tour which I caught at the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough. It is a quite gentle, touching piece, which reminded me of my favourite John Godber play, September in the Rain, in some ways. Al and Bet are an older northern couple, but not old enough yet to be content with a limited life in their little house doing not much at all. Both of them have dreams, which Bet attempts to fulfil by entering competitions, while Al hides away in his shed after his retirement, painting pictures with more good intentions than talent. They still love each other but they have forgotten how to express it, each lost in their own low key, mundane misery. When Bet describes Al as “just one grunt short of being a pig” she is only half joking. It could easily have gone on like that until one of them shuffles off, Al has already been wondering how he would cope, but when Bet wins a short break to Paris her good luck brings the chance for change. Alright, it’s only on a ferry and it’s just for one day, but it’s something. April in Paris is the story of their trip, and its consequences, as they find out about a new corner of the world, and each other. The writing has heart and we want things to turn out well for them on the journey.
There is some very sparse, quite subtle, writing along with the laugh lines, familiar to someone like me who grew up among people like Bet and Al. Al in particular is a lovely portrait of a certain kind of Yorkshireman who ought to be extinct by now but hopefully never will be, struggling quietly to communicate and hiding his softer side behind a defensive wall of jokes and banter. This is a man who has almost let life pass him by, but not quite, and we feel for him. I liked Rob Angell’s performance very much. He has great comic timing but and nailed the laughs without losing sight of the real man who was vulnerable and puzzled to know what to do with himself. He has a soul in there, lying dormant, and he needs to find it. I have to be honest and say that I’m not sure that I would have cast Wendi Peters as Bet. She is a terrific actress, strong and forthright, and I’m not sure that she quite caught the wistfulness in Bet as she looks for a better life and tries to persuade her reluctant husband to come on that journey with her. Having said that I really enjoyed her performance and she did a very good job. That strength which she has in abundance as a performer is the strong inner core which many northern women of that class need to get them through a tough life and it is certainly a part of Bet.
The play is very well directed, as you’d expect given that the director also wrote it and has played Al himself, and it is never overdone. The laughs are never signposted too heavily and the story never becomes farce. It would be easy to patronise these two characters without that first hand insight, and as someone who knows these people very well, having grown up among them, I was grateful for that. The set also works very well, taking us effortlessly to Paris as a colourful underlit floor collage of the Moulin rouge and the Eiffel tower replaces the dull kitchen tiles of the first act, reflecting the blossoming of the two characters. A quietly satisfying and heartfelt two hours of theatre.