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Brief Encounter With ... John Godber

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When John Godber first joined Hull Truck Andrew Lloyd Webber hadn't yet unleashed The Phantom of the Opera on an unsuspecting world and Wayne Rooney was no more than a twinkle in his Daddy's eye but last year, after more than a quarter of a century, the highly successful partnership came to an abrupt end.

The catalyst for the separation was the Yorkshire theatre's decision to make redundant, and crucially not replace, the then artistic director, Gareth Tudor Price, an action Godber felt he couldn't just stand by and watch happen. "I said (to the board) listen, I can’t stay here cos everybody who works in British theatre will say they sacked the artistic director and what did John Godber do? He did nothing…So it was a matter of principle."

Although it was a split that inevitably left it's mark on the playwright, " There’s a lot of sadness about what happened and about having to leave a theatre I’ve had a relationship with for a quarter of century", Godber adheres to the old adage of "the show must go on". Working under the banner of the newly formed John Godber Company, and in partnership with the Theatre Royal Wakefield, it is very much business as usual for Godber.

After discussions with several theatres interested in co-producing his work Godber felt that Wakefield offered the best fit, " I’m a West Yorkshire lad born and bred", he explains, "Wakefield is such a beautiful little theatre to put plays on, so Wakefield it was." Although moving from Hull Truck was, by his own admission, "a bit of a shock to the system" Godber is in little doubt that he's learnt enough through his years in the industry to ensure the success of his new venture. Sticking to the maxim of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" Godber brings a tried and tested formula to Wakefield, as he explains, "the model worked at hull truck for 26 years so I don’t see why it shouldn’t work coming out of Wakey."

Godber's plans are to develop Wakefield as a centre for excellence for new writing and to produce two tours each year, with productions ranging from new pieces to revivals to classics. Kicking off this new era is The Debt Collectors. This new piece, written and directed by Godber himself, focuses on two out of work actors who, struggling to find any acting work, find themselves working as the eponymous doorsteppers. The idea had been brewing inside Godber's head for a while, "The idea came about several years ago", explains Godber, "I read a book called Maxed Out about the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in America. I’ve kind of got a nose for these things in a sense, I anticipated that debt was going to be a huge problem."

Thinking there could be a TV series in the subject matter Godber then wrote a pilot episode but struggled to find a producer who got his particular mix of bleak humour and seriousness. It wasn't until some time later when Godber was chatting to a couple of 20+ stone actor friends that he hit upon a way to tackle the subject matter in a way that excited him and could also work particularly well on stage, "they said we just can’t get any work and it just crossed my mind that what f they got work as debt collectors, cos they’re certainly impressive and formidable figures if they were to land on your doorstep."

With the idea taking shape, Godber then embarked on a period of research into the shady world of unlicensed doorstepping in Yorkshire. Along the way he made many unreturned phone calls, which only fuelled his intrigue, and collected many astonishing stories including one of a man in the midlands who underwent a sex change in order to avoid paying his debts.

As well as the current financial plight of the world Godber also uses the play to look at the nature of fame. In a celebrity obsessed world where talentless "wanabees" will stop at nothing to become famous Godber has created two characters with genuine talent who are forced to give up on the industry and find work anywhere they can get it. "I was looking at the blend of reality and illusion, these two guys can’t get any telly work cos now you’ve got people out of Eastenders going in to Emmerdale and people out of Emmerdale going on to ice dancing and people from ice dancing going in to the West End, the whole thing is this kind of nexus of celebrity."

As with much of Godber's work, The Debt Collectors is firmly rooted in Yorkshire life and experience which highlights an interesting paradox in his work. Godber is often referred to as a "Northern" writer, in a way someone like Alan Bennett wouldn't be, implying a parochial quality to his work and yet Godber is one of the most performed playwrights in the UK and his work has true global appeal. Suggesting a reason for this anomaly, Godber says "The truth of the matter is is that beyond the comedy there’s a sadness and there are astute observations on what it’s like to be alive and the nature of the underdog… I’ve always had an affinity with people who are on the edge."

For Godber the appeal of the underdog doesn't just resonate through the regionality of any North/South divide or the iniquities of the British class system but is a notion with global appeal and goes some way to explaining why his work is also popular abroad and in some unexpected places too, referring to one of his early plays, Bouncers, Godber says, " The Belgians got Bouncers cos they like a drink. It went to the national theatre in Paris and it died on its arse cos the French couldn’t understand what being pissed up and shouting and balling was all about. They’re far too sophisticated to get that." Furthermore, Godber believes that the themes of debt and celebrity, which are at the core of The Debt Collectors, are universal in these current times.

Despite this, it is clear that Godber fully embraces his Yorkshireness. He chooses to reside close to the "normality" of the Humber Bridge, a safe distance from the heart of London's "theatre luviness". He is quick to point out that "It’s not that I despise the London theatre scene at all, I’ve just never been invited to be a part of it." However this assertion is perhaps a little misleading as Godber has written a string of west-end transfers and turned down two offers to write for the National Theatre in the 80's, a decision he now looks back on as "foolish" and he readily admits that if they came back to him now he "could have a conversation." But until that call does come Godber clearly has plenty to keep him busy for the foreseeable future.

The Debt Collectors continues to tour until December and can be seen at the following venues.

4 – 8 October, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmund

13 – 15 October, Buxton Opera House

18 – 22 October, Theatre Royal Wakefield

1 – 12 November, Hull Truck Theatre, Hull

14 – 19 November, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

22 – 24 November, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne

29 Nov – 3 Dec, The Festival Theatre, Chichester


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