Hull Truck Theatre
York Theatre Royal and touring
Hull Truck Theatre return to Godber's play Our House to tour what is effectively the writer's most autobiographical piece. Elderly mother May (Jacqueline Naylor) is finally moving house after living there for forty-five years and her son Jack has come to offer somewhat limited help. A young removal man slowly removes the packed up boxes while scenes of the past unravel before the old lady's eyes and we experience a potted history of her life in the house.
Time jumps forwards and back and we see the relationship the couple had with the old neighbours to the new breed of council house tenants who move in next door and begin to make ailing May and Ted's lives miserable. Deliberately turning their thumping music up loud to annoy the elderly couple, screaming at their kids, soaking May with a hose pipe, filling their garden with dirty nappies and dog excrement, these are certainly the neighbours from hell.
Meanwhile their son Jack (Matthew Booth) grows up, gets a job, has kids, argues with his parents, splits up from his wife and, when his writing becomes popular, tries unsuccessfully to court his agent's assistant (I should, at this point, make clear that not all of this is true to life as Jack's character differs from Godber himself!). One of the most amusing scenes is Jack's awkward conversation with his father when as a young man he finds he has caught VD. Ted (Dicken Ashworth) helpfully advises him, "You'll have to go to Wakefield for that."
Godber sets this microcosm of northern life throughout the 70's and 80's against the political themes of the miners strike as Ted loses his job at the pit, and the newly made opportunities for the couple to buy their council house under the Conservative government. When the government changes again May complains to her husband that the awful situation with their new neighbours would never have happened if they hadn't bought their house from the Tories.
In the original production in Hull, Godber had the advantage of using two spaces to replicate the entire garden in a purpose made space, which is a luxury he of course does not have while touring. Pip Leckenby's set presents a cut away wall from which we see the neighbours dancing and drinking to their thumping music. Although this presents an unproblematic view, it comes across as a somewhat unimaginative and awkward setting, and for the minimal use this large portion of the stage utilises it is largely left redundant during the production.
Naylor's portrayal of May is excellent from the subtle changes in movement as she looks back to days when she was more mobile to the shrill voice she uses to tell her teenage son what she thinks of him in his new flares. And while Dicken Ashworth is well cast in the role of Ted, his performance is disappointingly spoilt at the very end when he enters as the new owner of the house in little more than a change of costume, a large beard and not an ounce of difference to his depiction of Ted. It is difficult to tell whether this production has deliberately used their wigs for comic effect - Booth's (as the younger Jack) is just blatant while Fiona Wass' (playing Sylvia and Sharon) come and go with the changing times and Naylor's works to some extent to age her for the elderly role. Meanwhile Lewis Linford (playing Steve/Les) and Annmarie Hosell (Sonja/Candice) have little to get their teeth into with the two-dimensional, stereotypical estate tenants but give good supporting performances.
It seems appropriate somehow that at the point when Steve dumps one of the packing cases on the polished dining room table May doesn't bat an eyelid but there was a sharp intake of breath from two audience members behind us! Fans of John Godber will enjoy this gentle and reminiscent comedy and empathise with the perhaps painful memories for the writer. Godber provides a touching picture of the aging couple's affectionate and lively dialogue but fails to make significant impact with his other characters.
At York until 15th March, then touring to Eastbourne, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Scarborough, Huddersfield, Greenwich, Winchester, Bracknell, Preston, South Shields, Middlesbrough, Salford, Scunthorpe and Harrogate.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys