It used to be both tempting and relatively easy to be patronising about John Godber. In the same way that the chattering classes conceive of certain laws as being enacted not for you or me but for some few poor, benighted wretches whom no-one ever seems actually to have met, Godber's work was immensely respected and admired but sometimes, in some circles, considered to be... well, prole-fodder. Such a point of view has, of course, always been utter tosh, and Godber's own production of his latest play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – coming on the eve of the release of the film version of Up'n'Under – rebuts it more comprehensively than ever.
In fact, the shakiest moments in Weekend Breaks come when his narrator-figure, drama lecturer Martin (Adrian Hood), is self-consciously given high-cultural references to drop in passing into his account of a disastrous weekend in the Lake District with his sexagenarian parents. By and large one identifies strongly with Martin, but I shudder to think what sort of person would describe a conversation with his father as "like [Beckett's] Hamm and Clov" or note that "my parents are a living, breathing example of absurd naturalism." He even comments on the Verfremdungseffekt of having to wheel on a hospital bed for his mother to lie in at death's door.
Luckily, these are no more than a handful of instants in 90 minutes of playing time. In all other respects, Godber shows a mastery of capturing the awkwardness of a family with not just a generation gap but a class divide as well, since Martin – the son of a Doncaster miner – has married into the refined southern bourgeoisie... exactly the kind of people, in fact, who would drip condescension about Godber plays. As stoical, long-suffering father Len (Dicken Ashworth) and incessantly complaining mother Joan (Judi Jones) demonstrate their love of Martin by driving him to distraction with their repetition, banality, nit-picking and repetition, he decides to kill them – only to be pre-empted by Joan's heart attack.
The subsequent scenes of mutual confession, reconciliation and what passes in all too many of our families for bonding and affection are perfectly balanced between dark grey humour and unobtrusive sentiment. What could have been a couple of polemics along the way, on the death of the mines and the starvation of the health service, are efficiently dispatched in thirty seconds or so each – enough for the passion to register, but not to derail the tenderly human focus on this unexceptionally annoying trio. We have all known occasions, and some of us have lived entire lives, when we wanted to speak from the heart but were too timid to do so; Len, Joan and Martin are such a family, and Godber portrays them with a fine mix of love and sheer bloody frustration.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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