On its first production in 2001, John Godber’s Our House was presented in two separate spaces, one of them a purpose-built auditorium containing a full-size replica of part of a council house and its garden. Clearly Hull Truck’s touring version could have no such luxuries: Pip Leckenby’s set, while supremely functional, looks flimsy in the Victorian opulence of Wakefield’s Theatre Royal, though any designer planning a tour of 20 venues ranging from Frank Matcham auditoria to theatres in the round has my sympathy.
However, the naturalism that’s essential to the play seems somewhat diluted. The dreadful neighbours who make life unbearable are limited in scope and reduced to conventional yobbish stereotypes who amuse more than appal. The sense of process in moving out an entire lifetime is reduced to a pleasant young removal man occasionally carrying out a box with suitable grimaces and groans.
The plot is simple, but encompasses in summary a full 45 years of life. May, recently widowed, is moving out of her house in Yorkshire to live in Spain. In the present, all that happens is that she talks to her writer son, Jack, his wife and the removal man, the confrontations with her neighbours rumble on and eventually she departs. The essence of the play lies in the snapshots of her life from moving there in 1958 onwards.
Often referred to as Godber’s most autobiographical play, Our House benefits in this respect from the gentle sympathy with which May and Ted, based on his parents, are drawn. To his credit Godber resists any temptation to make the son (whose situation reflects his own) any kind of a hero. As played by Matthew Booth, Jack is well-intentioned enough, but weak, self-centred and not terribly interesting. The focus is firmly on the parents, with Jacqueline Naylor and Dicken Ashworth straightforwardly affecting and often amusing, though Naylor is too obviously many years younger than her character.
Godber’s production is typically brisk, with seamless joins between past and present, and the play is entertaining and sometimes moving, if held back by some caricature performances in supporting roles. My reservations, I should make clear, were not shared by the Wakefield audience which responded with constant laughter (in all the right places and one or two wrong ones) and a standing ovation. Could this be due in part to Godber’s canny placing of local references? It’s interesting to speculate on the reactions of Winchester or Eastbourne audiences later in the tour!
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield)