Shafted

John Godber

John Godber Company and Theatre Royal Wakefield

East Riding Theatre

From 25 April 2015 to 10 May 2015

Review by Richard Vergette

If ever a playwright was motivated by his roots then that playwright is surely John Godber.

His latest play, Shafted, tells the story of a redundant miner's attempts to rebuild his life and fortunes following the pit strike in 1984. The mining industry is territory he trod in what is often regarded as his best play, Salt of the Earth, and an even earlier work, Happy Jack, based on the lives of Godber's grandparents.

There is nothing safe about this territory, however familiar it may be to the playwright. The sense of anger, defiance and social injustice fires through all these works and it's one of the many features that make them compelling, dramatically effective and memorable.

The large and enthusiastic audience that was present on Monday evening in Beverley’s new East Riding Theatre applauded warmly, and deservedly so, but watching Shafted is not a comforting or reassuring experience.

The social messages about an industry and its people cruelly abandoned may be delivered with humour, but there’s nothing cosy about this tale. It is however a touching and beautiful piece of theatre.

Godber and his playwright/actor wife, Jane Thornton, act together for the first time in five years and the chemistry is apparent from the off. Harry and Dot irritate, antagonise, verbally abuse and shout at one another and yet, in the scene where Dot prepares to leave an increasingly volatile Harry, she can’t do it. The couple’s sense of devotion to each other is the uplifting feature of this play; the government might have abandoned them, but their strength wins through despite everything the world can throw at them.

Godber and Thornton work with a complete mutual understanding and a sense of understated passion and purpose all too rare in theatre. It’s a masterclass of well observed, detailed acting which succeeds in moving an audience without recourse to stereotype or grandstanding.

As Harry, Godber is perfect as a powerful man laid low by events. He is almost too big for the stage, a huge symbol of wasted energy reduced to necking cheap cans of cider and smoking weed. When his anger surfaces it’s almost heartbreaking as he seems incapable of understanding that his way of life has gone forever. As the exasperated Dot, Thornton skilfully gains our sympathy trying desperately to keep her family and her marriage together as poverty and her husband’s breakdown threaten to envelope them.

I’ve always loved the stage musical of Billy Elliott but found something slightly ironic about a huge, expensive and lavish production telling a story about poverty (the same can be said for Les Mis but I really don’t love that). It may seem a bit sanctimonious to believe that a simple, human and low budget type of theatre connects with this theme better, but I honestly believe it does.

Godber’s play shows what happened in the aftermath of the strike and how the wounds inflicted during the strike may have dried up, but they’ll never fully heal. As he approaches his sixtieth birthday, I suspect I’m not alone in hoping that the creative anger which burned bright last Monday continues to blaze inside the big man for a hell of a lot longer yet.