There 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?