Tag Archives: John Godber

Nice Try


The REP, Birmingham, Monday 12th March, 2018


John Godber’s 1984 comedy is doing the rounds in this new revival by Fingersmiths, a company that incorporates deaf actors and British Sign Language into plays.  Having seen their Frozen (not the Disney one!) a while back and knowing how effective their approach is with a drama, I was interested to see how they’d manage something lighter.  BSL, a visual language, with its gestures and exaggerated facial expressions lends itself very well to comedy, it turns out.  There is one point when it’s purely signed and I can’t follow it – a clever way of demonstrating what it must be like for the deaf when there are no signs or captions.

The plot is nothing groundbreaking: a ragbag team of underdogs strive toward a common goal.  In this one, it’s a pub rugby team struggling to win against the odds.  It’s all because of a rash wager made by Arthur (Wayne Norman).  He bets his house, but the terms of the bet are reduced to three grand.  And so, the stakes aren’t all that high, the jeopardy isn’t that perilous… In the event, it’s not the plot that keeps me interested.  The production is a triumph of form over content as the sign language is supplemented with surtitles and voice-overs, each cleverly and wittily included.  That Arthur can’t speak BSL adds another obstacle to his challenge, and leads to some cringeworthy moments as he persists in raising his voice in order to communicate!

The team is comprised of Frank (Matty Gurney), Steve (Stephen Collins), Tony (Nadeem Islam), and Phil (Adam Bassett).  Each of them is, shall I say, a lovely mover, skilled at heightened expressions, working with clarity and precision.  I was concerned my ignorance of both rugby and sign language would be a barrier to my enjoyment.  I needn’t have worried.  Collins warms into his role nicely, demonstrating excellent comic timing.  Islam is graceful – in a cartoony way.  Bassett performs a dream sequence, a piece of dumb show to a voice-over, that is highly effective, and Gurney, the largest of the group, is both an imposing presence and a subtle one.  Each man brings something to the ensemble and they all get loads of laughs.

The only female in the cast is Hazel (Tanya Vital) the ‘grown-up’ recruited to get these man-children into shape.  Vital also operates as a narrator, starting us off with a prologue and linking scenes with descriptive passages.  Godber’s writing is pseudo-Shakespearean here, elevating the humble pub team to heroic proportions.  Maybe.  Vital’s vitality is the lynchpin of the performance, our touchstone in this esoteric world.

As ostensible villain of the piece, Reg, William Elliott completes the cast, also providing sports commentary.  Added together, this is a tight ensemble.  While the play is now old hat – especially where its sexual politics are concerned – this fresh approach keeps us hooked.  I find myself more interested in the way it is done, rather than what the characters are doing.  Where it works best is the climactic match, cleverly staged: a nifty bit of costume design means the cast can play both teams at the same time.  Director Jeni Draper pulls all the elements together for a pleasing denouement, but I don’t feel the production gets beyond its novelty value to make us care for the characters and their ups and downs (or should that be ‘unders’?)

T Vital with UnU cast

Tanya Vital leading the cast (L-R Wayne Norman, Matty Gurney, Nadeem Islam, Stephen Collins, and Adam Bassett)

October in Coventry


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 8th October, 2014


I have mentioned before my preference for John Godber’s earlier works: plays like Teechers and Bouncers, which combine theatrical brio with pertinent social commentary – so what brings me to Coventry to this touring revival of his 1992 piece, which is characteristic of his later works: plays invariably preoccupied with lower middle-class couples going through marital strife while indulging in pursuits like city breaks, booze cruises or cable car rides?

Frankly, I’ve come for the cast. The play is a two-hander, featuring Shobna Gulati (Corrie, dinnerladies) and one of the clan McGann (Joe, this time).   From the off, this pair engage me and it’s also pleasing to note that Godber (who also directs) has updated or refreshed the script: it works a lot better than a production I saw years ago. It’s funny – in a sit-com kind of way but there is a political undercurrent, there if you look for it. If you don’t, it’s a very funny study of married life.

Al (McGann) and Bet (Gulati) could bicker for England. Gulati shows a nice line in deadpan Northern camp, supplemented by some hilarious physical comedy (her disco-dancing is a sight to behold!) while McGann is spikey and sarky, embittered by his lot in life.  They form quite a double act.

When Bet wins a magazine competition, the couple travel to Paris, arguing all the way. The sniping can turn quite savage and acerbic but what also begins to emerge is how much these two love each other. Bickering is how they communicate and there are moments when they allow each other to be happy that are rather touching. Nestled within the barbed attacks is a lot of truth. Al’s pride is injured: he can’t afford to treat his wife to foreign holidays and so will not let himself enjoy the freebie trip because he feels he hasn’t ‘earned’ it. Godber nails this working-class attitude perfectly: you only deserve what you have earned – this contrasts nicely with Al’s tightness about spending money on what he regards as fripperies: magazines and scarves.

There is a complexity to the characters and their relationship that enriches the piece beyond its sit-com set-up, a complexity brought to life by an excellent brace of actors. There is also commentary on the state of the nation, with its boarded-up high streets and Godber hints that staying in the European Union is to the nation’s benefit. It’s subtly done; the emphasis is on the central relationship. There is plenty to get me laughing out loud.

Pip Leckenby’s set symbolises the smallness of Al and Bet’s world, opening out when they get to Paris. Travel broadens their outlook and instils them with a greater appreciation for what they have at home.

And now I find myself looking forward to any future refreshed versions of Godber’s stuff. With this production, he has won me round.


Promenade Performance


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 11th September, 2013

Of late, John Godber’s output has been dominated by two-handers about married couples on the rocks and indulging in some kind of activity that serves to foment their troubles and bring about some kind of resolution.  They go on booze cruises, trips to Paris, or cycle around Amsterdam, translating their midlife crises elsewhere.  This 1983 piece however, while it is a two-hander about a married coupl.e is a variation of Godber’s own genre and is all the more satisfying for it.

Liz and Jack are the married couple, well past midlife, visiting their favourite holiday haunt, Blackpool.  They shuffle on, headscarf for her, flat cap for him; she launches into a chirpy, Scouse, dramatic monologue that introduces them, and he offers monosyllabic responses in his gruff Yorkshire manner.  They take us back in time to other, earlier holidays.  Off come the scarf and the cap and instantly they are their younger selves again.  This is where it all becomes more interesting theatrically.  Using narrative theatre and very few props, they mime re-enactments, populating their anecdotes with a range of comic characters; it’s an approach that allows the skills of the actors to come to the fore.

Claire Sweeney is in superb form as Liz, chipper, garrulous Liz, quick to get a nark on and escalate tiffs into full-on spats.  Sweeney drops in and out of various characters seamlessly – including a bow-legged, male lorry driver.  She is matched by John Thomson as Jack, misanthropic, grumpy Jack, who has had a hard life in the mines but harbours a soft heart beneath the surface.  The pair recount various events and incidents and the emphasis is very firmly on comedy, but a picture emerges of a life together in all sorts of weather, and the story is ultimately a touching one.

Godber directs his own piece, making the most of his excellent cast, resulting in a very funny performance of a lively script.  The humour sparkles and ignites in a way that doesn’t really happen with his later, more middle-class output.  Pip Leckenby’s set, deckchairs and lampposts along the promenade with the Tower and town as a backdrop, evokes the place but gives the cast room to manoeuvre and perform some moments of hilarious physical comedy.

There are more highlights than you could fit on the back of a picture postcard: a ride on a rollercoaster, a trip to see The Student Prince, the obligatory climb of the Tower… The play evokes nostalgia for a bygone age of seaside holidays, Blackpool rock, donkey rides, bingo, and fish and chips in the rain, but it also depicts a loving relationship that can weather all storms in an affectionate portrait of shared lives.

It is the most enjoyable Godber I’ve seen in a while, making me nostalgic for his early works.


Disquiet on the front: John Thomson and Claire Sweeney.

Try as they might


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 3rd September, 2013

This new play from John Godber is set in the overlooked and cash-strapped world of women’s rugby.  I don’t know much about rugby (or women either, come to that) but that is not a barrier to accessing the plot.

Schoolteacher Maggie (Elizabeth Carling) runs a team in her spare time, a team of a diverse group of women who, frankly, could have wandered in from any other play of this type.  Instead of tap-dancing, pole-dancing, posing naked for a calendar, or whatever, these women train and play rugby.   Maggie feels she’s fighting a losing battle.  The main (men’s) club isn’t interested in promoting the team.  The local press won’t come near them.  They have to make do with home-made equipment and a lack of members (so to speak).

It could have some biting things to say about women in a man’s world, about the inequalities and prejudices that still exist, but such comments as there are seem only to be sideswipes.  There are only rare glimpses of the harder-edged Godber from his earlier, strongest works (Bouncers, Teechers...) when an embittered Maggie berates her own profession for spinning kids who haven’t got a chance “a yarn about achievement”.

It’s a play of two halves.  The first gives us lots of short scenes in which the women train, go on the lash, raise funds in fancy dress, go for an Indian… The scenes give us a picture of these women’s lives, but don’t really develop the story until the end, when the decision is taken that they won’t close the club just yet but will switch to playing “Sevens” instead.

Between the scenes, changes are covered with bursts of loud music that would be at home in the Bouncers nightclub.  Here it is jarring and incongruous, and does not match the pace or tone of the scenes themselves.  A bizarre choice.

The second half is set entirely in the filthy changing room at the Sevens tournament.  Each scene charts their progress through the matches.  Unfortunately the same lack of passion that bedevils the team, hinders audience involvement.  It’s very difficult to get behind these characters and cheer them on.  At least the music during transitions is more appropriate, moody and atmospheric.

Godber has an ear for naturalistic dialogue, specialising in the obvious humour of ordinary people.  This is a skill, to be sure, but the show also needs the surprise and the invention of a playwright, to lift it beyond the repetitiveness and the ordinariness.

Abi Titmuss acquits herself well as ice-maiden doctor Jess, who has a clinical approach to everything.  Hayley Tamaddon is energetic as goodtime girl solicitor (!) Amber, but Claire Eden steals just about every scene as coarse, plain-speaking farm worker Donna.  Eden keeps going off and coming back on as Donna’s identical twin Daisy, a vet, who is always called away to sort out a cow or a rabbit with colitis.  It’s an amusing device at first but confused me in the second half.  Daisy is called away when the pager in her sock goes off, reducing the squad to six.  Earlier in the play they mentioned that a team had been disqualified for not having seven.  But this team plays on… As I said before, I don’t know much about rugby but there seems a hole in the play’s logic here.

Another point I couldn’t grasp was Maggie’s motivation for setting up the club and keeping it going against all odds.  It emerges that her sister died from a brain injury at 25 while playing rugby.  Maggie runs the club in her sister’s memory.  Oh.  If the sister had been killed by a drunk driver, would Maggie invite women to get in their cars and go on a pub crawl?  I doubt it.  I suspect Maggie might campaign for improved safety on the rugby pitch, rather than invite other women to put themselves at risk.  As I also said before, I don’t know much about women either.

It’s a mildly amusing couple of hours but doesn’t really go anywhere or say much.  They get muddy, these women, but in their camaraderie and banter, never bitch or backstab enough to earn them the epithet ‘cows’.


Sentinel review: Losing the Plot


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 19th March, 2013.


Here’s my review, which first appeared in The Sentinel on Thursday 21st March.


Still Bouncy

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 19th September, 2012

John Godber directs this ‘remix’ of his 1977 play, proving that in 35 years, little has changed in the culture he depicts with equal measures of affection and cruelty. It remains his best work.

Four men in dark suits and black tees, complain about their lot on the doors of the ‘Asylum’ disco/nightclub. They also become their customers, a group of girls and a group of lads as they plan, prepare for and enjoy a Friday night out on the piss and on the pull.

With a few deft strokes (and the addition of a handbag) the caricatures appear – some of their features are exaggerated but they are all grounded in reality.

Don Gilet is bouncer Les but he really comes to life when depicting the punters, male and female. William Ilkley is the brutish Judd – his Plain Jane girl could have fallen out of Viz magazine. Ace Bhatti’s sexy Suzie encapsulates the precocious teen who, beyond dressing up and applying make-up, doesn’t know what she’s doing. But it is Ian Reddington as Lucky Eric, the lynchpin of the piece, who really shines in all of his incarnations. He is afforded four soliloquies, each darker than the last, revealing the seamier side of the revelries. He implores us to look at the Big Night Out as something more sinister – this is not some tract expounding the medical dangers of alcohol abuse but rather a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Why is this weekly ritual all that life has to offer these people, “the working class with no other options, in a country that hates them, drinking themselves to death.”
When he details the degradation of a woman in a pub, or sexy Suzie’s grubby sex in an alley, it is horrific. We feel as helpless as him. A certain slice of British society has been held up for ridicule, disgust and ultimately pity.

The play covers similar ground to Willy Russell’s Stags and Hens, but this is the in-your-face Brechtian version, revelling in its own theatricality and artifice. The cast is a tight ensemble, a chorus, united in movement and verse. The minimal staging – four metal beer barrels and some stairs – is plenty. The characterisations, forged from gesture and voice, make the audience create the details in their imaginations, filling out the sketches into portraits of people we recognise. In the hands of this excellent, tight-knit group of actors, it remains a powerful tool.

The ‘remix’ is really cosmetic. Mobile phones, YouTube, Joey Barton – names and music are updated but the heart and the meaning of the play remain intact. Only the scene (albeit hilarious) in which the bouncers act out a ‘bluey’ seems like a relic from a bygone age, merely because film projectors have been superseded by the digital age.

I am certain the audience, containing several large parties of GCSE students, got a lot from this dazzling and funny display of theatrics, but I know, with the frustrated fatalism of Lucky Eric, that these kids will go on to live out many of the experiences depicted on the stage, and not because they saw them played out on stage. Rites of passage are one thing but when it comes to the adoption of a lifestyle I have to agree with the play: Something is rotten in the state of Primark.