Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Happy Jack’, which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme until Saturday 30th April.
It’s not often you get a stage play that is also a ‘page turner’.
Watching ‘Happy Jack’ is like thumbing the pages of an old family photo album … keen to see the next snap-shot of life in the old days. It is one of the first plays John Godber ever wrote, precisely 40 years ago, based on the lives of his own grandparents in a small Yorkshire mining village. In this two-hander, Jack (played by Godber himself) is a no-nonsense working man who spent 52 years down a hole in the ground; and Liz (Jane Thornton) is very much his house wife, proud to give her husband fresh clothes every day to get mucky down the pit. Apart from a treasured annual week in Blackpool, life is very much the same, day in day out. That’s the life we see, scripted in reverse, with actors handily announcing which page we are now on.
To have created such a fascinating play out of such simple lives is an absolute triumph and, in 1982, it heralded a new force is British Theatre.
But let me turn a few pages of my own. It was in the 80’s that John and Jane stepped into my local radio studio to talk about this new play they were bringing to town. John and I had more hair and less girth back then, but Jane looked just the same. They were a lively, lovable pair who, it transpired, were indeed falling in love. The play sounded new and exciting and fun, in a Coronation Street kind of way. But it was live on stage, rather than on the tele.
“What happens?”, I asked. “Not much”, came the reply. “But what does happen is absolutely true to life. Which is why we’re doing it.” So, I went to see it … and was blown away by the quality of the writing and the characterisations.
John’s grandad ‘Jack’ was just like my grandad Joe (on the other side of the Pennines) who spent his life in t’mill … rather than down t’pit. I was also deeply impressed by the way the two young actors so convincingly played 70-year-old characters.
I decided to follow their careers….and watched with delight as they became a towering mainstay of British working-class theatre. Godber is now our third most performed playwright, after the Bards of Stratford and Scarborough.
40 years later Mr and Mrs Godber ( as they are now ) are approaching their own 70s and know themselves, each other, and their material so well the play just tumbles from their lips. The timing, the inflections and nuances are incomparable. The humour is easy, the quarrels are ridiculous, the pain is pitiful. We meet them at the end of their lives, stoically planning their demise, and leave them with two versions of their first meeting; the romantic one they like to remember and the baldly true one they’d rather forget. But then, there’s not much choice in a small village.
The map of their lives rattles around from courtship in the local flee pit when, to Liz’s embarrassment Jack laughs too much, to their wedding day when he doesn’t smile enough. From the aching grind of 8-hour shovel shifts to Liz’s relentless depression of the same four walls. And from the weekly joy of Jack bathing his tiny grandson … “you’ve got muscles like knots in string”… to the stardom of winning ten pounds in an excruciating holiday camp ‘Mr & Mrs’ competition.
It is still true that nothing much happens – but then again nothing much did for working class couples back then. They had no aspirations and few achievements. But with 40 years additional nostalgia to quarry, the play now works better than ever … in the hands of two superb actors who have worked so wonderfully well together for so long.
This anniversary production of ‘Happy Jack’ is a milestone in British theatre on our very own doorstep …. which should be scrubbed with soap stone for the occasion.