Bouncers

John Godber
Empire Theatre, Sunderland, and touring
(2002)

When announcing the theatre's autumn season, the Empire's general manager Dominic Stokes admitted that drama at the theatre has always been a risky business but he thought that Bouncers is "the right product." The first night audience of around 1,000 would appear to bear this out and, although the advance of around 600 for each of the other two nights is not as good as the theatre might have hoped for, it is still vastly better than some of the tiny audiences plays have had at the venue over the years.

There is no doubt that the two "names" in the cast - John Altman (EastEnders) and Nigel Pivaro (Coronation Street) - are the draw, but the play, typically of Godber, is very much an ensemble piece and Messrs. Altman and Pivaro do not in any way dominate. In fact, the other two cast members, north easterner Christopher Connel and Andrew Dennis, seemed far more at home onstage than the two TV stars.

Not that they gave a TV-like performance, but there were moments when they weren't quite big enough and I thought I occasionally detected a hoarseness in Altman's voice which bespoke a lack of practice in projection.

But the play and the production rise above such minor quibbles and the cast gave a good account of a play which is rapidly becoming a classic of its type. As often with Godber, the cast's rapid switching from character to character at first makes us feel that the characters are paper-thin and little more than caricatures, but gradually individuality begins to emerge. The actors can't receive any help from costume changes - not even the addition or taking away of a single item of clothing, as they can in, for example, Teechers, (except that, as girls, they do carry shoulder bags) - so they must use body language and voice. The fact that, by the end of the play, we recognise each character even before they begin to speak is a tribute to the cast.

That said, however, there is little real depth of characterisation, as one would expect in a different form of play - and it would get in the way, anyway - except for Lucky Eddie (Altman), who functions almost as a Greek chorus, commenting (in his "speeches") on the action, but Godber undermines this seriousness with comments such as "Lucky Eddie's first speech" or a chorus of "social comment".

Beneath the comedy - and it is a very funny play - lies some very serious "social comment", not so much the voiced comment but the impression of the desperately empty lives of all the characters, male and female, bouncers and clubbers.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan