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John & Jane Godber On ... Their Rare On-Stage Outing

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On March 4th the Hull Truck Theatre production of April in Paris will see the first appearance together on stage for over 17 years of husband and wife John and Jane Godber. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that it will be only their third appearance together in total: September in the Rain in 1984 and in the original production of April in Paris in 1992. So the obvious opening questions when we talked at the end of the second week of rehearsals were both Why? Why has it taken so long and why this play now? John recalls their first on-stage partnership:

“When I got the job here, I’d already written a play when I was teaching at Minsthorpe which we’d taken to the Edinburgh Festival, September in the Rain, so they got a writer, director, play and cast all in one. It was a reasonable success at Hull and then Jane was in Up’n’Under which was a big success. After that we didn’t feel comfortable having a relationship and being in plays together. A number of locals said, ‘Oh! He’s come in and brought his wife in’ – well, she wasn’t my wife at the time – so we thought we’d avoid that. Then, in 1992, I wrote April in Paris which was set in the recession, with unemployment, redundancies and so forth. We did it together at Hull Festival and got nice reviews, then it went to London, but Jane and I couldn’t do it there because we weren’t well known enough. A couple of months ago we went to see it in Swanland and we said, ‘We’ve got a choice: we can either try to get well known people in it or we can have a go ourselves again.’ It’s not as if we’ve hogged the limelight over the years.”

Jane’s reasons for reviving it might sound at first a touch nostalgic (“It was a great part of our relationship, making theatre our career, and we fancied re-creating some of that”), but ultimately present themselves in theatrical, not personal, terms:

“Now we can bring 30 years of experience in terms of our marriage compared to 10 and that puts a different angle on it, a different challenge. I think their future held much more promise when we first did it, although it’s quite a dark piece, because they were younger and potentially could have gone on to have children and all kinds of things. That’s not there any more, so it’s that much bleaker and more poignant. Socially, the fact that he’s lost his job is very apt for today.”

“We’ve been talking about the closure of Corus this morning” – John picks up the social theme – “and how what’s behind a lot of our work is a social-political intellect and because the plays are funny some people miss the socio-economic element. A bloke’s lost his job – he’s been a builder – and suddenly he and his wife are flung together in the tiniest of houses. They’ve learned to live apart, in a work situation, and now they’re rubbing each other up the wrong way because they’re not used to being together. It’s how we’re defined by work. It’s a sad comment on a society that has to win all the time.”

Both Jane and John clearly still have a great fondness for the old days of touring with the set in the truck or the props in the car boot and, bearing in mind the differences of size between the old Spring Street Theatre and the new state-of-the-art Truck Theatre, I ask how a small-scale two-hander will play in the new theatre. John sees no problem:

“The design’s very strong; there’s a spatial difference between them in their house in Hull and on the boat and then in Paris – it moves from being very small to quite large. In London it was done in a big pros arch theatre, so it’s not as if it hasn’t played big theatres. We’re hoping we can bring some energy to it to fill the space.” (When John later proudly shows me round his new domain, I make the acquaintance of Pip Leckenby’s Moulin Rouge and Eiffel Tower!)

In the publicity surrounding the rarity value of the Godbers’ appearing together, few people have noted that, for each of them individually, it’s the first time on stage in a decade or more, a pretty bold move in my book for theatre people with big enough reputations to be shot at:

“We’ve been writing and directing and, in my case, Youth Theatre work,” explains Jane. “It’s been 14 or 15 years since I was on stage. I’ve done television and film acting, but not theatre – it’s a bit scary! John was in Bouncers in the West End about 10 years ago…” (“Only for a couple of weeks”, John interrupts.)

While both insist that it’s fun and a load of laughs, Jane raises a cogent point. John’s reputation is as a writer/director, but for this production a co-director has been brought in: Neil Sissons, formerly of the late and very much lamented Compass Theatre – to what effect?

“We know him very well and he knows us, so there’s great trust there,” she explains. “He challenges us. It’s really stimulating because it is there on the hard drive – not all the words, of course – and you could just re-create what you’ve done before, but that would not be as valid.”

And, finally, I wonder, if the Godbers appearing together on stage happens only every decade or two, what about writing collaborations? In the last year or two a radio series and the multi-award-winning OddSquad for television have been enormously successful joint projects, but what of the stage?

“I don’t think we like writing for the stage together,” confesses Jane. “Very different styles”, according to John. Last year Hull Truck staged a new version of Shakers, their best known stage play, but there’s no immediate prospect of further collaborations. So one way or another April in Paris looks like a pretty rare opportunity of seeing John and Jane Godber making theatre together!

- Ron Simpson


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