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.

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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.

Men of the world. Hull Truck at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 08-04-10

hullThere is a lot to admire about what John Godber has built up at Hull Truck. He has developed a distinctive, thriving local theatre in Hull since he became artistic director in 1984 by the force of his prolific talent as a writer and director and developed a keen eye for what the Hull audience will enjoy and respond to. Now, over twenty five years later, Hull Truck is thriving in a new building and the loyalty which he has given to Hull has been returned in full by the enthusiastic local audiences. There may not be many surprises in a typical Hull Truck production of a John Godber play but there will be honest storytelling about working people delivered in a cleverly theatrical, entertaining and sometimes moving context. He is a confident playwright and director and you can rely on him, and his casts to deliver.

Men of the World is a vintage example of what they do best. Three coach drivers are setting out with three coach loads of passengers to visit the Rhine Valley and we see the progress of their journey with its heartaches, frustrations and laughter. Their passengers are mostly OAP’s and as they muse on life, the universe, aching legs and cheese sandwiches we come to admire their unstoppable spirit at the same time as we laugh with recognition at their foibles. We have all known people on that coach, those of us who haven’t got there yet may be them one day, and we laugh with them ( but never at them) as they treat us to their gems of mature wisdom. Regretting the fact that young people seem to have relationships which are ever more impermanent one of them says sadly, “They should make them stick together- see how they like it.” Over and over again the audience laughed, delighted to recognise people on stage who they felt that they knew, carried along by the truth of character comedy which never strayed into farce and sometimes caught by surprise and silenced by moments of poignancy. The three bus drivers were nicely contrasted and characterised. Frank, a good hearted woman who had learned how to be one of the lads, Stick, youngish, cynical and hankering to be moved onto the Spanish run and try his luck with the younger women to be found there, and Happy Larry, who is lonely and wondering if his luck has run out and he should make this his last run. Sarah Parks, Robert Angell and Dicken Ashworth also played the full range of passengers on the coaches, helped by a few scarves, flat caps, baseball caps, pipes and head-scarves. The three of them worked very well together, accurate and responsive to each other and they often drew a round of applause simply for their cleverness. I particularly liked Sarah Parks as Frank. She has terrific vocal flexibility and a killer instinct for the body language of elderly men. She also did a very sharp turn as a dreadful club comic and singer who entertained the passengers on one of the stops. It was very important that the elderly and the unsophisticated were not patronised or lampooned and they never were. Nor were they sentimentalised. The play was a celebration of the fact that they were still getting out there and grabbing the few opportunities that life had left for them. None of them had any illusions about their circumstances. They hadn’t spent their youth dreaming of going on coach tours, any more than young people do now, but if a coach tour down the Rhine was the best thing on offer to them at this late stage they were going to grab it with both hands. After all, it beat staying at home, didn’t it?

The direction, by Godber himself was sure footed and thoughtful, respectful of his characters and drawing as many visual possibilities as possible from three actors and a pile of suitcases. He understands his talent and what he can do with it after so many years experience and it shows. No surprises then, and no moments of out and out brilliance, but sometimes the fact that a piece of theatre does exactly what you expect it to can be a great strength. After all, when you open a can of beans you don’t want rice pudding do you?