For this relief much thanks. After some years distinctly off the boil, both of the UK's most popular playwrights have used 2004 to return to top form. Earlier in the year, Alan Ayckbourn gave us his witty Posh'n'Becks demolition job, Drowning on Dry Land, and now John Godber serves a real ace with Going Dutch.
Whilst Ayckbourn's characters tend to hover around the home, failing to enjoy dinners or parties or sometimes dinner parties, Godber sends his on journeys, by bus or boat or plane, to Blackpool, Paris or Heidelberg and back again. This time it's Rotterdam (for a Springsteen concert) by P&O ferry.
The concert is a pretext for Mark, a freelance composer, to push the boat out for his fiftieth birthday, with his wife Sally and their old college chum Gill. Sally has a well-honed line in amused cynicism and is well aware that her man has long lusted after Gill. For her part, Gill has a back catalogue of disastrous affairs and turns up for the trip with her latest in tow.
This is Karl, a recent ex-con found by her when she was doing a creative workshop in a prison. Karl is - as near as makes no difference - a psychopath: for a start he refuses to buy a red wine for Mark, on the grounds that "it's a twat's drink", and from there he just gets more menacingly offensive with every utterance. His one redeeming feature - and that only for Gill, who is reduced to rhapsodies by it - is in his trousers.
In other hands this would be the recipe for an orgy of low humour. But Godber, when soaring as he is here, not only peppers his dialogue with sharp one-liners, but also takes his characters through entirely credible metaphorical journeys. James Hornsby’s Mark, whilst strangely possessed of the idea that a man at 50 becomes simian in bearing, is a far better foil for the brain-dead Karl (Rob Hudson) by not being portrayed as the total wimp that a lazy writer might have settled for.
And whilst Gill (Jackie Lye) has been an all-comers' bike all her life, Godber gives her the dignity of sufficient self-knowledge to have rejected Mark's advances on several occasions, despite accepting money and gifts from him which were clearly intended as bribes.
But truly magnificent amongst a superb cast is Gemma Craven's Sally, laconic, accepting, smiling and mediating, but finally betraying the despair and frustration that marriage to Mark has become. It is a performance of depth, subtlety and control, with, at one point, a slow-burning crescendo of laughter even longer and more infectious than Norman Wisdom's “Narcissus”. An auditorium full of helpless laughter is a wondrous thing, and Craven's sudden application of the off-switch fully merited the spontaneous applause and cheers it received.
Going Dutch is going to delight audiences in 20 British cities between now and the summer. How sad to be a Londoner and miss out on some of the best of British theatre.
- Ian Watson (reviewed at Hull Truck Theatre)