Happy Jack

John Godber
The John Godber Company
Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire

Happy Jack

A sense of Yorkshire pride comes through John Godber’s words in Happy Jack, which he wrote two years before the cataclysmic miner’s strike of 1984 when he was just 22. He freely admits to being a bit of rebel in the early period of his playwriting career, wanting to challenge the normal structure of plays.

Using a ‘warts and all’ philosophy, he wrote about his own parents in a biographical format and, like the famous Yorkshire bread, there’s nowt taken out. Stage directions are spoken and the two characters explain in the opening narrative that this is a play set in a Yorkshire pit village where coal is king and words aren’t wasted.

He gleaned most of his material from his own parents by pretending to write about his grandparents, resulting in a realistic, heart-warming and honest insight into lives lived among the coal-dusted villages that gave birth to the coal mining industry.

We meet Jack and Liz as an old couple reminiscing about Mario Lanza, sitting by the fire in their miner’s cottage. Matthew Booth lends a deliciously dead-pan quality to Jack, the archetypal grumpy old man, who’s quite deaf and shaky and who says ‘eh?’ and ‘bloody hell’ all the time.

Liz is the fastidious northern wife, who scrubs the steps on Wednesdays and woe-betide if the washing and cleaning duties aren’t done properly on the right day of the week. Her cheerful drudgery is punctuated with an occasional bout of giddiness; the squeal of her laughter is so infectious, it’s impossible not to smile along. She ends so many of her sentences with a long-suffering look and the words ‘You have to laugh, Jack’, as if it will persuade him to do so. Happy Jack, she calls him because he is such a miserable character.

We watch the couple get younger, experiencing their memorable life events as if they are happening right now. Old age, retirement, working down the pit, going on holiday and playing Mr & Mrs after a slug of alcohol; then marriage, childbirth and courtship all make the idea of real life in reverse into such a refreshingly rejuvenating notion.

Jacky Naylor finds a lovely feisty simplicity in Liz, fitting her beautifully into her shoe-box-sized life where everything has its place and time. She’s not afraid to show her frustrations, but even their yelling sessions display an almost entirely unspoken bond betwixt the two, which is both unbreakable and deeply heart-warming. Naylor also plays a chap in a pub and a box-office lady, as well as making quite a splash as her own grandson (fabulous), in an extremely funny scene where Granddad is giving him a bath.

She nails every character with pure honesty and the naivety of a child dressing up to perform her latest play to an audience. Clever stuff, Mr Godber.

It is incredible to think that Happy Jack is more than thirty years old; but there’s a truthful timeless quality to this little piece of Yorkshire social history that isn’t showing its age at all.

This short revival of only nine performances is obviously to test the water with the promise of a full revival tour in 2013, probably dependent on how the audiences receive it. Well, there’s nowt like a good yarn, a bit of down to earth humour, and a cup of Yorkshire tea, so go and get on with it and I’ll look forward to seeing this again next year.

Reviewer: Helen Brown