On graduating in 1978, John looks back over his formative years, recalling all the embarrassments, tensions, joys and sorrows of family life in a West Yorkshire mining community during the 1970s. Now older and better educated, he finds himself alienated from his working-class family, who cannot understand his growing intellect and theatrical aspirations.
Mat Walker is excellent in the central role of John; he has a splendid flow when switching between active character and narrator, while the alteration in his physicality as his character grows from child to man is outstanding. It is fitting that as the focal character, he commands the stage throughout.
Chrissie Derrington (Dot) and Bruce McIntosh (Vic) are also excellent as his parents. The chemistry between the three is credible and genuine, while the dynamics between the parents is fascinating and brilliantly portrayed. McIntosh, in particular, shows a wonderful sense of comic timing with his actions, facial expressions and delivery of dialogue, while Derrington epitomises the image of the traditionally strong Northern matriarch.
There is very good support from Dawn Cresswell (Dot’s sister, Doris), and Hazel Gibbs and Robin Ede as John’s maternal grandparents, while it is a shame that the character of Lyn appears in only one scene, as Tess Kazim’s portrayal of John’s childhood friend is terrific and their interaction hilarious.
In what might arguably be better described as a ‘memory’ play, rather than an autobiographical one, new director Kitty Cecil-Wright has ensured that every moment of dark and light humour, pathos, confrontation and emotional impact is vividly brought to life on stage, enhanced by the extremely good and consistent Northern accents – even if I’m not convinced that they were all from the East side of the Pennines! The uses of frozen tableaux are very well planned and executed as John speaks directly to the audience, while essentially the pace is very good. Although the actors are often either sitting or standing on the same level, there is so much natural physical responses and movement from them that this actually adds to the authenticity of the domestic setting.
There were some sticky moments tonight with stumbles over the dialogue and the occasional audible prompt (and I believe a significantly mistimed sound cue), but the cast recovered very well from these and the audience seemed to be carried along on the same emotional rollercoaster that John and his family were riding.
The script itself is firmly set in the 1970s, with references to arctic rolls, Blue Nun and other culinary ‘delights’ from that era, while some of the subject matter is definitely a case of “It was alright in the ‘70s” – and this makes uncomfortable viewing at times, mainly due to the powerful performances that relay these topics, not just the narrative itself; a particularly cutting remark that elicits one of the most poignant reactions, is when Nanna Liz matter-of-factly states, without malice, that “no matter how much [her son in law] tries, he’ll never be one of us – this is my family”. The attitudes of his family towards John when he states his intention to become an actor are convincing, disturbing and honestly portrayed. The script doesn’t hold back – and neither do the actors. However, there are also entertaining references to some of Godber’s other plays, with comments about nightclubs, teaching and rugby, which the Godber connoisseur will instantly recognise!
The scenery is on first viewing very simple, but closer inspection shows how beautifully it has been painted, as the almost pencil-effect sketches give 2D images of a small living room, with the recessed back walls depicting a row of terrace houses and the old exterior mining pit frames; the costumes establish the 1970s era, but I love the fact that the music is much older, as would have been played by the more senior members of the family with their favoured choices.
This is a play with performances that will make you laugh, cry and, above all, consider what it means to be Happy Families and is well worth viewing.
Runs until 17 November, 7.30pm nightly.