It’s far from unknown for actors to return to favourite parts over the years, sometimes straining credibility in terms of age: I can recall, for instance, Michael Redgrave returning to Hamlet in his 50s when several years older than Googie Withers who played his mother.
With John and Jane Godber, returning to April in Paris some 18 years after they last played the parts, it’s quite a different matter. The characters, too, have become older; some unobtrusive tweaking brings the action up to 2010 and the play and production are the better for it.
April in Paris relies on a device used in other John Godber plays: the sudden transformation of the lives of ordinary folks. But, whereas these can have an element of fantasy among the naturalism (in Up’n’Under The Cobblers would have walked all over the Wheatsheaf in real life!), in April in Paris everything is all too real, sometimes painfully so.
Al has worked as a builder all his life and suddenly been made redundant. His life lacks meaning, shape and purpose and, worst of all, he and his wife Bet find seeing too much of each other a painful experience. He takes refuge in his shed and his painting, she escapes to a part-time job, does endless competitions and tries to persuade him to join her and her friends in an occasional night out. Then she wins a competition, nothing too grand, just one night in Paris and a return trip on the overnight ferry. It is, of course, a transformative experience, but Godber avoids simple answers and a glib happy ending – instead we have an in-character sort-of-happy ending!
The ageing process produces a darker play, with possibilities closing down around them: losing your job at 53 is a different matter from losing it at 35 – and they’ve had nearly 20 more years to get on each other’s nerves! When Al talks of suicide, we don’t believe that he ever seriously considered it, but we do believe that he thought of seriously considering it! As played by John Godber with understated graveyard humour, he is a man whose very certainties spring from uncertainty: he is sure he won’t like Paris because he fears the unknown. Like Al, Bet, as played by Jane Godber, moves easily from the comfortable boredom of routine to explosions of exasperated fury, her sense of adventure not quite squashed out of her by a husband whose attempts to relate consist mainly of offers of coffee because that’s all he can think of.
Paradoxically, the ease of the Godbers together makes the failure of the marriage more convincing, a marriage in which neither partner ever says the other’s name. Lest all this makes April in Paris sound too gloomy, this is a very funny production, sharply directed by John Godber and Neil Sissons in sets by Pip Leckenby that move from the drabness of Al and Bet’s little house to a sparkling suggestion of the City of Light.