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Happy Jack (tour– Chelmsford)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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It's quite a good test for both a play and a particular production of it when teenagers in the audience are as involved in the drama as their seniors. Especially when the play is ten years old, set in what is now a vanished mining community and examines an enduring marriage. John Godber's Happy Jack, like his September in the Rain, shines a light on two people who at times endure rather than enjoy together and yet have a thoroughly complete relationship.

Keith Hukin's production for Reform Theatre Company is a stark one. His two players are on a bare stage, furnished only with a couple of kitchen chairs and with a backcloth which might represent the slagheaps of the couple's Yorkshire village or even the seaside to which they escape for their one week's annual holiday. It throws all the emphasis on the acting.

Liz might once have held hopes that she would flower properly into Elizabeth, but that's not what life has allowed. Annie Sawle makes her thoroughly credible and ultimately sympathetic as she does her best for her family and nearly learns to sublimate both her own personal longings and the intimations of the cancer which will kill her in a hope that the next generation, at least, will not have to struggle and compromise as their parents have done.

Godber's script takes us through the decades as though rifling through the pages of a diary; it's not in sequence, so that we experience the effect before the cause. There are some highlight moments – the cinema visits, when Jack scoffs all the sweets he has bought for Liz, the holiday village competition, the debates about Mario Lanza and John Hanson – and some moments of bitterness – Jack's comment that "two miles underground is a long way away" encapsulates the miner's working condition better than most polemics.

Roger Butcher is Jack, a man who works hard, provides for his family, believes in something better, but is not always able to articulate how he feels, and why. Coward gibed about the "potency of cheap music" but Butcher allows you to understand why the words and the melodies of popular songs and numbers from the shows stand in for so much that everyday speech cannot put into workaday speech. It's a deceptively simple play and presented in a manner which reflects this, but it's as deep as an untouched seam of valuable minerals just waiting to be unearthed.


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