The John Godber Company’s association with Wakefield Theatre Royal has produced a rather different, but very successful, example of the playwright’s work. Where we expect new plays and revivals of past hits (of which there is no shortage), John Godber has gone back to a 1982 play written when he was still teaching at Minsthorpe High School, a success then at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but largely forgotten since.
Happy Jack contains many of the elements we associate with Godber’s plays: the story of a married couple’s life in a West Riding mining village is filled with the humour and social observation that is his trademark and it’s so close to his own life that he even claims it’s based on his grandparents (or parents!). However, its loosely free-wheeling tone (without losing control of the structure) gives it an easy charm and understated humour that contrasts with some of his more determinedly entertaining pieces.
Matthew Booth and Jacky Naylor are both experienced in the plays of John Godber and have, in fact, only just finished touring Lost and Found, a pair of two-handers by the Godbers, but I have not seen them better than in Happy Jack, playing naturally and sympathetically and putting the odd bit of unlikely doubling (such as Naylor playing Jack’s grandson as a baby) within metaphorical quotation marks!
The play proceeds in reverse order, from the announcements of the deaths of Jack and Liz to a comic scene in deafly confused old age all the way back to the time he first asks her out just outside the Co-op. The actors move out of character from time to time to narrate or to explain what they’re doing and the short scenes are very varied in tone. Some are little more than black-out comedy sketches, some probe character much more deeply and subtly, occasionally there’s a poem about life in a pit village written by John Godber’s father! The scenes are separated by snatches of music from (for the most part) big bands –I hadn’t realised Duke Ellington figured so large in Upton life, but it works perfectly.
The production is configured for small venues in a short tour now and a longer one next year and Foxton’s designs have simplicity and versatility without any pretence at naturalism: we can see the backstage at the Theatre Royal behind the basic part-living room set decorated with a fine montage of period photographs.
Happy Jack runs at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield until 20 October and then plays: