Writer: John Godber
Director: John Godber
Reviewer: Phil Lowe
It is a great sign of comedy when the performers get laughs before they have even spoken a word and so it is at the very start of Godber’s play about a pair of married pensioners looking back to the 1950s and reflecting on a succession of holidays at the same B&B year after year in Blackpool. As the actors John Thomson playing husband Jack and Claire Sweeney as his wife Liz shuffle across the stage set of a sea front at Blackpool the Derby Theatre audience are already giggling away.
The laughter grows and grows through the play as Thomson and Sweeney become their characters’ younger selves and chat with the audience about how they feel about the happy experiences and marital frustrations they go through at Mavis’s B&B on Woodfield Road in Blackpool and en route to their holiday destination. Both Sweeney and Thomson are very adept at mimicry and throughout the play they temporarily become other comic personae like the landlady Mavis, a bad tempered haulage trucker and most hilarious of all – the sewer man. Thomson’s telling of the story of the people gathered around a sewer drain to watch a large piece of excrement float by is classic comedy and comic timing. Both performances are very strong and likeable.
John Godber’s characters, Jack and Liz, are based on his parents and he says that he assumed that they went back to the same place every year for 50 years because they were attracted to the West End shows that played there, the appearance of variety acts and TV stars in end of pier shows, the beautiful sands, the famous tower and ballroom and the circus. Apparently not – they went to Blackpool after going to Scarborough in the first year of their marriage and his father discovered that the east coast air gave him asthma, something that Blackpool didn’t seem to do. As Godber says “The randomness of life continually leaves me agog!”
The terrific writing and the playing of the characters has a real human warmth which the Derby audience fully appreciated as Liz and Jack constantly bicker with each other and tease one another as couples often do. Sweeney with her underplayed Liverpool accent and Thomson with his no-nonsense Yorkshire accent and mannerisms create characters that are like chalk and cheese and for all their faults and stubbornness you can’t fail to love them. Their relationship is very believable and each character has their flaws so that soon the comedy becomes a drama as the heavens open and they part company while rowing. You genuinely want to rush back after the interval to discover what happens next. There is a third character in this theatre piece and that is the character of Blackpool depicted here with a wonderfully realistic set complete with sand on the steps, strings of gaudy lights and the famous Blackpool tower in the misty background. You almost expect a seagull to fly across the stage.
The near to capacity audience lapped up every emotional minute whether they were laughing at Jack trying to erect the deckchairs (superb comic timing by Thomson) or sympathising with Liz as Jack storms off after a particularly vicious and unexpected argument and I suspect that many of them left the theatre with a cathartic and nostalgic feeling of a shared experience and an umbrella up and ready for the – all too real – October rain.
Runs until: 26 October