A Taste of Honey. Hull Truck/Derby Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 22-05-14

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Rebecca Ryan as Jo. Production photograph by Joel Chester Fildes.

A Taste of Honey was a very influential play, written in 1958 by eighteen year old Shelagh Delaney. She wanted to give British theatre a badly needed shot in the arm and found exactly the right place to do it- Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. Joan Littlewood was both a theatrical innovator and a fine play doctor and if you had something new and startling to say in 1958 there was nowhere better to say it. Some of the themes of the play, sexuality, parental neglect and cruelty, were shocking for the time. A whole strata of society was being placed in the spotlight after a period where the middle classes had been firmly centre stage. This movement, which had been kick-started two years earlier by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, became known as kitchen sink drama and it was far more controversial and shocking in its day than it seems now. It was regarded as dangerous and even anarchic. Working class characters were being given a voice and allowed to challenge social norms on stage and this was threatening to exactly those people who had formed the backbone of the theatre audience. These were exciting times for a young girl to dip her toe into. The best of what was written in the genre is honest, dynamic and heartfelt and the writing in A Taste of Honey still stands up remarkably well after 46 years. The dialogue feels real in the same way that the early episodes of Coronation Street were.

This is a solid workmanlike production which I didn’t feel quite caught the harshness of the play. This is a cruel world where there is not very much hope, a world which Jo’s youth and outspoken bravery is going to have to fight hard to overcome and I would have liked to see a harder edge to the direction from Mark Babych. Having said that it does still work really well and there are some memorable performances. Julie Riley was thoroughly dislikeable as Helen, the mother from hell, and all too believable in her selfishness and cruelty. She also looked pitch perfect for the period which matters in a play that is so much of its time. No wonder her daughter, Jo, is so ambivalent at the thought of being a mother- she has had an appalling role model. Rebecca Ryan is also very convincing as Jo- full of youth and energy- and her anger becomes very touching as we understand that it is coming from her vulnerability and need. Both the men who she turns to for support are nicely played. I liked the way that Lekan Lawal showed us a decent man who I felt would have liked to have done the right thing by her if things had been different. Christopher Hancock was extremely touching as Geoff, the gay young man who tries to find with Jo the loving relationship that society does not allow him to have by taking on the caring, motherly role that Helen has abrogated. I wasn’t so sure about the way that Peter was played by James Weaver. It was a little overplayed for my taste.

The live music from the cast is really well done and adds poignancy and atmosphere. I also enjoyed the fact that the three men gave us a great live set in the theatre bar before the play. Full marks to them for that.

I am glad to have had the chance to see A Taste of Honey on stage. It’s a fine piece of writing and the original production must have been something to see.

Jumpers For Goalposts. Paines Plough, Hull Truck and Watford Palace Theatre at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

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Andy Rush as Geoff, Vivienne Gibbs as Viv, and Jamie Samuel as Danny.
Production photograph by Elise Marks.

Tom Wells has written a cracking play. It is full of charm, heart and the kind of sentimentality which only someone with a lot of talent and an ability to write totally believable dialogue and characters that live and have you rooting for them can get away with. It’s also beautifully structured and there is a real attention to detail, threads are woven together and returned to, something which pays off beautifully at the end. This kind of writing is gold dust for actors and all five members of the cast make the most of the opportunities that it gives them. They are a hapless five a side football team playing in a small local tournament brought together by Viv, a pub landlady, and we see them in the changing room after each weekly match as the tournament progresses and their relationships develop. Each of them is there for a reason. Viv is wanting to feel a sense of achievement that goes beyond a grinding daily routing of serving pints and clearing glasses, Joe is still mourning his wife, Luke, a young librarian, is trying to overcome his crippling shyness and find the courage to start out and make a relationship, Danny is also trying to find the courage to face his secret and find find a way forward, and Geoff, well Geoff is the kind of lively, happy guy who is full of life and into everything with dreams and hurts of his own. They are a fascinating and loveable bunch. I don’t want to give away what happens but I promise you that you will laugh a great deal and care a lot.

The acting is first rate from beginning to end. Given writing of this quality a group of talented actors really can’t lose. Vivienne Gibbs is sharp, funny and touching as Viv, as during the course of the play she realises that there is more than one way of winning. Both she and Matt Sutton as Joe have an ability to make us see the pain behind their eyes and let us imagine a whole scenario for their characters. I liked Andy Rush a lot as Geoff. He was the kind of out and proud gay guy (I don’t mean camp necessarily) who can sometimes be overplayed but this was an honest and vibrant performance which never went over the top. The heart of the play and the real motor of the plot, is the will they won’t they get together situation between the remaining two gay characters, Philip Duguid-McQuillan’s Luke and Jamie Samuel’s Danny. They are both utterly heartbreaking in their vulnerability and loneliness and lovely portraits of good decent people who deserve a break.

The set has the same kind of attention to detail that shines through the rest of the production. It has the grubby seediness that haunts all sports changing rooms, a seediness that you can almost smell from looking at it, but shot through with a kind of wistful beauty as light shines in through a corrugated roof scattered with leaves.

I think that the greatest pleasure for me was feeling the quite sparse matinee audience change its mind about this play as it went on. An elderly Scarborough matinee audience are quite cautious and perhaps unused to a lot of swearing and gay kisses. You could feel them wondering what to make of it for the first quarter of an hour or so but once they settled into it and fell for the characters they really got behind it and were so anxious for the ending that they wanted that one or two of them were whispering out loud. It was delightful. An ability to write honest, straightforward plays that can have that kind of effect on people is a real gift. I have not managed to see a play by Tom Wells before but I won’t be missing the next one and I bet the actors in Jumpers For Goalposts won’t either if they get a chance to be in the cast.

Losing The Plot. Theatre Royal Wakefield at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 11-04-13

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Steve Hulson and Susan Cookson as Jack and Sally.
Photo by Mustard Seed Media Photography.

Most people have toyed with the idea of walking away from their everyday life at one point or another. It’s a interesting subject for a play and in John Godber’s two hander, Losing The Plot art teacher Jack Monroe does just that without warning for three months, leaving his wife and teenage children to manage alone. It is billed as a comedy with cartoon characters on the poster but along with the laughs there is serious discussion about art and its place in everyday life, triggered by the fact that Jack’s wife finds a new way forward after his disappearance by writing a popular novel.

Steve Hulson and Susan Cookson have a nice rapport on stage as Jack and Sally and there is some heartfelt acting but I felt that at times they were rather better than the material deserved. I never quite believed in Jack and that certainly wasn’t down to Steve Hulson’s performance. The play gets off to a slow start in the first half and the tone of the script is uneven, it is neither the broad comedy nor the exploration of middle class angst that it could have been. It needs to be either funnier or more truthful, ideally both, but only a great play really manages to pull that off. I wonder if John Godber is looking for a new way forward in his writing and hasn’t quite found it yet? He has written a lot of fine work over the years, much of it funnier or more moving and certainly more theatrical than this play. We spent far too much time watching a single character in a room talking on a mobile phone and the fact that the couple had two teenage children was mostly left unaddressed.
A disappointing play given the best chance it could possibly get by a talented cast and a fine realistic and detailed set.

Lost and Found. Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 12-07-12

Two new short plays, Lost by Jane Thornton and Found by John Godber form an interesting double bill at the Stephen Joseph theatre this summer. They are two handers, both set in Scarborough, and look at the difficulties of communicating within a relationship both at the start and after many years.

Matthew Booth and Jacky Naylor in rehearsal for Lost.
Photograph by James Drawneek.

Lost follows an elderly couple, Len and Betty, who are returning to Scarborough for a short break after many years of marriage. Nothing much happens. They have their meals, their walks, and their ups and downs. It is a totally character driven, well observed, honest piece of writing and its audience of mostly older Scarborians were able to understand the subtleties of what was going on very easily as they recognised themselves and enjoyed its charming mix of laughter and pathos. The characters often speak directly to the audience, sharing feelings with us that they can’t share with each other, and small details are used cleverly to explore the relationship and the joys and sorrows of the couple, both separately and together. It is about putting up with stuff within a long term relationship and understanding why you have to, enduring the small annoyances and giving each other another chance in the hope that things will get better. So much of what was said by both Len and Betty rang true with the audience whose laughter was that of people who have been there and know what it feels like. There is a lovely moment where Len goes off to park the car and Betty explains that it will take him forever and tells us why, which is just one example of unshowy acutely observed writing among many. I felt for them. Matthew Booth and Jacky Naylor both give precise and touching performances, making the most of opportunities in the dialogue, and have a nice rapport both with each other and with the audience. A small delight, a real piece of writers theatre.

John Godber’s play Found is perhaps more ambitious, looking at themes of class mobility and snobbery from both sides of the fence as a young PhD student and an older woman in her fifties who is still partying and dressing as though she is much younger, meet on the foreshore at the end of a summer season of hotel work. It worked well, but I saw it very early in the run and I think the shaky start to the run with a late cast change affected this half of the double bill more at the moment. There were times when it wasn’t quite up to speed but I am absolutely certain that it will be very soon, the characters are already there and Matthew Booth and Jacky Naylor know them well enough. It just needs a little more bedding in. What happens when you cross class boundaries through education is a fascinating subject, and a very English one, and perhaps a short play doesn’t give enough space to explore it properly- it makes everything which happens just a little bit sudden. John Godber has set himself quite a challenge and that is no bad thing. He has succeeded, but it doesn’t quite ring with truth yet in the same way that Lost does.

Catch these plays on tour if you can. They are well worth seeing and they are only going to get better.

The Debt Collectors. Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 17-11-11

John Godber’s new play The Debt Collectors is a grim look at life today through the eyes of two debt collectors, Spud and Loz, two actors who have fallen on hard times as the parts dried up, forcing them into the bleak, all too real world where people don’t get up again after they have been shot. They have ended up doing a debt clearance in the theatre where their final production together (Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter appropriately enough) was put on. This sets Loz thinking about how their lives have turned out and the structure of the play reflects this, taking us back in time through his eyes as he shows us how they have come to be where they are. He has deeply hidden resentment to come to terms with and a question which he desperately needs to ask and in the gripping final scene we see him reach the point where he is ready to release his anger and let rip before moving forward.

Rob Hudson as Spud and William Ilkley as Loz both give heartfelt and truthful performances, creating two believable men who are very different characters but share a close bond built over many years. They are also asked to fill in the world in which the debt collectors operate by playing some of the debtors and they do this with great skill, providing some moments of light relief alongside the tension. They are both experienced past members of John Godber’s Hull company and they understand his naturalistic choppy dialogue very well, keeping the pace moving and making the structure clear as well as finding depth in their characters. Given the fact that he was directing his own work with two actors that he knew well you would expect Godber’s direction to be seamless and it is. He knows exactly what he is doing.

The Debt Collectors is the first production of the new John Godber Company in collaboration with the theatre Royal Wakefield. Leaving Hull Truck, the theatre where he was artistic director for 26 years and which he took from bankruptcy to a new home in a 15 million theatre in 2010 is a huge new challenge. Wakefield, his home ground, is a perfect setting for a new phase in his work and if The Debt Collectors proves typical it looks like it may be very interesting, a new vision in a somewhat darker vein. I am looking forward to seeing how it all works out.

April in Paris. Hull Truck theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 05-05-11

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.

The Price. Bolton Octagon/SJT/Hull Truck at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 6-4-11

There is a moral heart, and a humanity to all Arthur Miller’s work that makes me full of respect for the man himself, never mind his talent. Thankfully David Thacker met the great man many times, at length, and worked with him, and the insight that he gained has borne fruit in many productions. As part of the sterling work that he has been doing at Bolton Octagon he has directed a production of The Price. Last time he directed it he had Miller beside him, and you can still tell that very clearly in this new production years later. It’s a great play and he and the cast have done it full justice.

The scenario is a familiar one to many of us who have reached middle age. The detritus of a father’s life is waiting to be disposed of by two brothers, Victor and Walter Frantz, after many years of avoidance, estrangement and indecision. The arrival of a long retired Jewish antique dealer, the enigmatic Gregory Solomon, to value the goods sets in motion a train of events where the version of the past which each character has held inside their heads is challenged and overturned. We all rewrite our past and attribute motives and feelings to others which we can never really be sure of, and this play takes a long hard look at that tendency and examines its consequences. There is plenty of humour here, and real vibrant characters, it is by no means a dry moral treatise, but this is what underpins the writing. There are no villains, each person has their own viewpoint, and their own agenda, and we feel for them all. As the excuses, misunderstandings and evasions of the past are stripped away and the tension mounts you reach the point where you can almost see the ghost of the manipulative old father sitting in his favourite chair enjoying the spectacle. All of the three Frantz’s, Walter, Victor, and Victor’s wife Esther, have a grudge to work out and exorcise. Nobody is free of responsibility or guilt. The tinder is ready to light.

Tom Mannion gives a moving and sincere performance as Victor. He has spent a long unhappy working life as a policeman and taken on the responsibility of looking after his father, and he has always resented the fact that his brother escaped to what he has imagined as a rich, fulfilled and happy life. When he finds that his father was by no means as helpless as he pretended, and certainly not as penniless, his world comes crashing down around him. His sacrifice was for nothing. He lashes out, trying to shore up his assumptions as the tide of reality brought in by his brother Walter sweeps them away.

Colin Stinton is very plausible and likable as Walter. This is important as we need to see that the old Walter has been destroyed by a breakdown and his divorce. When he tells us that he is a new person we need to believe him, so that the tragedy of Victors failure to accept the opportunity for friendship and prosperity which he brings carries its full weight.

Suzan Sylvester is very striking as Esther, Victor’s wife. She has good taste, she likes nice things and her loyalty to Victor has denied her the kind of life that would have made her happy. She is still hanging in there, keeping herself smart and attempting to be cheerful and bright with the help of an odd drink or two. Her desperate attempts to get Victor to be honest about the past and accept his brother’s friendship are all the more moving because they are to no effect. She has always known the truth, as he has, and it is painful and frightening for her to admit it.

All this would be more than enough but just for good measure we get to meet Gregory Solomon, one of the most vivid and engaging characters that Miller ever wrote. This part is a great gift for any actor in the later stages of his career ( Solomon is 90 years old) and Kenneth Alan Taylor relishes every moment. He is sharply precise, funny, moving and completely believable in a part where a lesser actor might be tempted to go over the top. Solomon is an enigma, whose phone number has been found by accident in a very old phone book, almost a mythical character, four times married, who claims to be a former vaudevillian acrobat. He is a catalyst and a truth teller. It has to be one of the best character parts in theatre, and it was a joy to see an actor who clearly enjoys acting without getting carried away playing him!

The Price will never get stale or old, so long as there are human beings living, making mistakes, and trying to come to terms with and make sense of their past.

Well done Bolton Octagon! Well done David Thacker! Arthur Miller would have loved it. We can be sure of that because he left instructions for its future with a great director who admired him enough to carry them out to the letter.

The photograph is a production still from the Bolton Octagon production and it remains the copyright of Ian Tilton.