The accidental blockbuster

If there’s one thing that the 35th anniversary tour of John Godber’s Bouncers tells us, it’s that sometimes it pays handsomely to write about what you know.

It is often said John Godber is the third most frequently performed playwright after Shakespeare and Ayckbourn. It is also often said that critics don’t like John Godber. Neither of these claims are proven, but he certainly has one claim to be a hate figure. You see, whilst most writers – even the successful ones – spend year after frustrating year inching their way through one painstakingly constructed script after another before they get anywhere, John Godber knocked off Bouncers in two afternoons. This has since grown to be one of the most profilic late twentieth century plays, performed all over the world, and – the biggest prize of all – a set text text in secondary schools. Jammy bastard. (And, okay, it wasn’t all plain sailing; the original two-hander at the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe bombed at the box office and the few critics who saw it either dismissed it or ignored it, but that’s the other capital offence: proving the art establishment wrong. Naughty naughty.)

Now in its thirty-fifth anniversary year, and the year when it is discovered that going out is still not horrible enoughBouncers, directed by the original author, has been touring the country under the banner of Watershed productions. John Godber has previously faced criticism for showing Bouncers virtually every year at Hull Truck long after people were sick of it, but there’s little doubt over the appetite in the rest of the country. At Darlington Civic Theatre, mid-week in the final stop on the tour, the theatre was mostly full. Not only that, but plenty of people stayed back afterwards for the post-show discussion. And it was clear the audience got it. Bouncers is not a piece of entertaining fluff, nor is it a production aiming to out-do other productions in shock value; the audience saw it, quite rightly, as a rather sad statement of the culture of drinking and clubbing every Friday and Saturday night.

The premise of the play is actually quite simple. Les, Judd, Ralph and Lucky Eric present a show about where they were. Or the course of the evening, they play several different characters, but they are mostly four lads-turned-pissed wankers, four girls out of a wild time (you know they’re playing the girls when they pick up their handbags), and themselves. The lads’s evening ends in vomiting, pissing their pants and spending far too much money (and hardly any action with the girls like they hoped); the girls end up in tears, hidden bitchiness, and in the case of local bike Suzy, getting shagged by a borderline psychopath. And the bouncers, of course, are used to all of this. All have their own issues and pent-up rage, especially Lucky Eric, whose wife is apparently one of the worst goers in the club. Throughout the play, Lucky Eric makes four speeches of things he’s seen, based in part on John Godber’s observations from real life.

What is the secret of the success of Bouncers? There really isn’t one. All John Godber did was write about what he knew, which was what he saw from clubbing in Wakefield in his younger days. It did of course help that he knows how to write a play script, but what really helped was two extraordinary lucky guesses. Firstly, the nightlife and drinking culture he chose to write about has barely changed since the play was written – if anything, the issue is more contentious than ever. Secondly, the physical theatre format he used was, at the time, an obscure thing that barely existed outside of fringe theatre; now this kind of theatre is mainstream and widely used in modern plays. It’s this game of guessing future trends that many budding playwrights try to play but where very few succeed. Bouncers is probably one of the best examples of a lucky accident leading to a box office smash hit.

Only thing I’m not fully sure of is the choice of theatres. John Godber says that this version was re-written and directed to take into account the large venues they were performing in. Good that he recognises that what works in a small theatre doesn’t always work in a big one, but I just felt, in spite of his efforts, that something was missing. Bouncers is very much a play written for a Fringe audience, and one of the strengths of Fringe plays is getting the audience close – or in this play, uncomfortably close – to the action. I don’t see how they could have done things any differently – there’s no way you could fit the audience for this tour into smaller venues – but this is price Bouncers pays for its success.

Bouncers may be getting done to death by every Tom, Dick and Harry at the Edinburgh Fringe nowadays, but there’s no denying that when it’s directed by someone who understands the play inside out – and who better than the writer-director author? – this play has a long way to go yet. I can see the going along as long as have the culture of drinking, drinking, drinking, clubbing and drinking. And that looks it it will be a long time yet.

The other Godber play touring this autumn was Happy Jack, again . This play has a lot of things in common with Bouncers: it was written early in Godber’s career, for the Edinburgh Fringe, and concentrated on what he knew about. In this case, it was about the life story of a couple, with their relationship based heavily on a mixture of his parents and grandparents. But unlike Bouncers, which has gone from strength to strength, this has remained an obscure play that few people have heard of, even Godber fans. Whilst Bouncers has been touring the big theatres, Happy Jack toured to smaller theatres such as the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, where I saw this.

“What’s make Jack so happy?” I hear you ask. Well, it’s a nickname given by his wife Liz in an ironic context, because Jack always does his best to look bitter and miserable even during the happiest days of his life. He also never shows any signs of love and affection, especially not to anyone he loves or cares for. But in spite of this, Jack and Liz spend a very happy lifetime together. Now, one criticism of Godber is that he keeps re-using the same plotlines and characters in different plays, and this format – a couple who grumble all the time but nonetheless love each other – has been done to death. This play, in all honesty, doesn’t offer much that his more famous plays don’t already have. But, with this pre-dating most of his famous plays, it’s still an interesting insight into seeing where the characters in his later plays came from.

John Godbers runs the scenes in reverse chronological order starting with an elderly couple and finishing with the first time Jack begrudgingly asks Liz out. However, in order to allow the audience to follow what’s going on, the play begins with a narration of Jack and Liz’s whole life. As a result, there is little room to keep the audience wondering what happens next. This is in contrast to plays such as Chalet Lines which did a good job of keeping the audience guessing how the scene from a decade ago fits in with the scene just gone. Nevertheless, this is a nice, undemanding, play, not so much as a story play, but rather snapshots from the life of a couple.

The future of John Godber’s work is a bit of a question mark. So far, his plays as the John Godber Company have been small-cast plays; Happy Jack re-uses the same two actors from Lost and Found (not a bad choice, as they clearly work well together), and prior to that, The Debt Collectors and Weekend Breaks had casts of two and three respectively. The future plans for the John Godber Company seem at best sketchy. But one twist in this saga is that Andrew Smaje has quit as chief executive of Hull Truck theatre. Some consider Smaje responsible for John Godber’s departure in the first place. Could this pave the way for the return of John Godber in some form? We’ll see.