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Shafted!

John Godber
John Godber Company & Theatre Royal, Wakefield
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Jane Thornton as Dot and John Godber as Harry Credit: John Godber Company

John Godber’s been a major figure in British theatre for more than 30 years, not only as an original, prolific and influential writer, but also helping guide Hull Truck Theatre from near financial disaster in 1984 to its new sumptuous home opened in 2010.

Seeing Godber’s early plays such as Bouncers and Up ‘n’ Under, with their mix of fast, furious physicality and brilliant dialogue is like downing a large glass of Andrews Liver Salts in one go.

Since 2011, he’s been writing and performing two new plays a year with his new group The John Godber Company in partnership with the Theatre Royal Wakefield. The establishment does eventually beckon to most of our theatrical enfants terribles, though Godber’s convictions remain firm, as proven by the fact the programme here includes the names of the cleaning staff (Ann O’Brien and Robert Taylor).

For a third of a century, Godber’s been living with his wife, actor/writer Jane Thornton (fellow artistic director of the twin companies), and it sometimes feels artistically that they’re joined at the hip.

Blasted!, set in a Yorkshire mining village, features them as Harry and Dot, husband and wife, a series of short scenes spanning from the end of the miners’ strike in 1984 (Harry was down the local pit) to the year 2014. Structurally it’s not unlike Godber’s play September in the Rain, which follows a similar time span through a couple’s annual holidays to Blackpool. He’s on pretty sure ground here as well as the son of a West Yorkshire miner, who's spent most of his life in the region. Godber’s subject matter needs the minimum of research.

The small-scale production is slightly dwarfed by Stage One at Northern Stage and looks better suited to a more intimate space. There’s a minimal set: a garden gate, some flowers, some hanging miners’ banners, the occasional prop, a relevant musical track to underline the year of each scene (though some tracks seemed a few years out) and straighforward lighting (lighting and set, Graham Kirk). Godber and Neil Sissons direct.

One oddity is that, although the first half takes us conventionally from 1984 through to 1996, after the interval we have reversed chronology, starting with 2014 and working backwards to the same 1996. I applaud the originality and there is an extra poignancy watching characters whose future you, as against they, are already aware of, though I suspect either frontwards or backwards in toto would have fared better.

As the couple struggle to adapt to the social and economic disaster of the end of mining, Harry tries entrepreneurship (window cleaning), escapism (smoking loads of dope) and lethargy. None works and it’s left to the more proactive Dot to arrange a new life—running a B & B in Bridlington.

After a brief success, under pressure from Harry, they move back to their roots, where eventually Harry pushes Dot round in a wheelchair and (for reasons I don’t understand as she is the only one of the two capable of moving on), she yearns to visit the local Mining Museum and he doesn’t.

The second half has more energy, humour and breadth than the first and both Godber and Thornton are terrific performers who bring an authentic feel to their characters. But there is a sense is of familiar and well-trodden territory which a writer of Godber’s talents may feel he has now excavated enough.

Harry is bitter and negative from the first scene and despite the colourful language, does not journey far through the play. With only two characters, this always limits us dramatically. It’s left to Dot to remind us people can kick against circumstance, however unjust.

Significantly, it is when the play almost escapes the shadows of the miners’ strike and broadens out to become about two ageing people trying to make do that we feel it at its most poignant.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer