Writer: John Godber
Director: John Godber
Designer: Graham Kirk
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Gym and Tonic is a re-write of a play originally staged 15 or 25 years ago – the programme is uncertain on that point. As John Godber rightly points out, awareness of men’s mental health issues has increased since that time, in the medical profession, the press and in the theatre – Gym and Tonic is by no means the only play on tour at the moment dealing with the subject. So the re-written play focuses more fully on that whilst still preserving the comedy.
At least that’s the theory. However, it doesn’t quite work, at least, not consistently. Don and Shirley are a married couple, 40-ish years old with two children, whose marriage is under strain from, among other things, an unsatisfactory sex life, incompatible aspirations and, particularly, Don’s unacknowledged problems with stress. They come to a high-class spa which they can’t really afford, undergo various treatments (cue comical massage), meet two contrasting fellow-guests (research suggests there may have been more in the original version) and react very differently to the situation. While Shirley delights in the pampering, Don’s stress levels increase until he has to break out and get some pasties and crisps from the Shell garage – do they really lock the gates at 6 o’clock in posh spas?
There is some serious conversation about male stress in between the comedy scenes and Godber is at pains to show that the spa is not as paradisal for its workers. However, to avoid spoiling the plot by giving details, the ending is a neat dramatic twist rather than any real response to Don’s problems.
Furthermore, the situation is so far-fetched that it’s difficult to believe in Don and Shirley, although both Peter McMillan and Stephanie Hackett give suitably naturalistic performances. They arrive at the spa, doubtful whether they are allowed to park their people carrier, with its dodgy exhaust, in the row of Bentleys and Rolls Royces, then Gemma, the manager (Jacqueline Naylor), greets them with an over-the-top display of elongated vowels and references to Lords and MPs. It’s a fantasy of luxury, made less convincing by the comedy of Gemma constantly interrupting herself to shriek for Keith, the porter (Robert Angell), who eventually appears – uncommunicative, shuffling off unwillingly with Don and Shirley’s luggage.
As impossibly rich widow Gertrude Tate, dropping names like confetti and rather too willing to emphasise the cost of everything, Jacqueline Naylor gives an amusing caricature, though she later brings out elements of humanity and wisdom in her dealings with Don. Robert Angell has less fun with the self-confident fitness fanatic Ken than with Keith, the grumpy porter. Geordie masseuse Cloe gets a nicely believable cameo from Stephanie Hackett.
Graham Kirk’s sunnily comfortable set provides a neat contrast to Peter McMillan’s convincingly troubled demeanour – trouble in Paradise!
Touring nationwide | Image: Ant Robling