Writer: John Godber
Director: John Godber
Designer: Graham Kirk
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
John Godber rather gives the game away in his frank and helpful notes on The Empty Nester’s Club: this is a “public sharing” of the play at “incubation time”. In other words, it’s work in progress.
While undeniably a pleasant 75 minutes playing time – and Godber is always wily enough never to stretch slight material too far – The Empty Nester’s Club struggles to grab attention as a play, though it creates animated pedantic discussion about the odd placing of the apostrophe.
Though most of the characters’ actions are, one assumes, totally unrelated to the life of the Godbers, the basic situation is almost uncomfortably autobiographical. John Godber’s wife, Jane Thornton, plays Vicky Barrett who is chairing the inaugural meeting of the Beverley Empty Nester’s Club, explaining how the departure of her daughter to university has affected her and her husband. The daughter in question is played by Martha Godber who is currently studying at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.
The first half consists of Vicky Barrett telling the story of bringing up Millie: the undue sense of responsibility of Phil, her educationalist husband (Robert Angell), who even drives behind the bus on school trips to check its speed; their pride when Millie gets an offer from Oxford and their inability to understand her turning it down; Millie’s wilful independence reducing communication to the occasional emoji. Vicky is practising her speech for the other empty nesters. She tells the story; Phil and Millie keep dropping in to re-play a scene. It’s verbally clever, true and often funny, but also predictable and, except for Millie’s poses and gyrations, very static.
In the second half lots happens or is narrated, but it’s not really convincing. The major twist is certainly believable – to the extent that you can see it coming – but the absurd behaviour of Vicky and Phil belies the fact that they are both intelligent people and it is difficult to find consistency in the characters. Is Phil Barrett a concerned parent? There’s no answer to that – or, rather, several conflicting answers.
The Empty Nester’s Club is a more successful piece of theatre than the above might suggest. John Godber’s gift for funny natural dialogue remains and here are two of the best actors at putting it across. Jane Thornton and Robert Angell play the parts with such understated naturalism that we can almost believe the characters, she dropping droll asides as afterthoughts, he the master of the sardonic quip. Martha Godber plays the youth card energetically and intelligently and manages the second half turn-round confidently.
The East Riding Theatre, relatively small and without a proscenium arch or a steep rake, is an ideal venue for The Empty Nester’s Club. Graham Kirk’s excellent designs successfully summon up the village hall setting, with streams of bunting and posters for the Tour de Yorkshire. As the play exists at present, it would settle comfortably in the village halls of East and North Yorkshire.
Runs until 25 June 2016 | Image: Contributed