Not a lot happens in John Godber’s September in the Rain. Strangely enough, it’s precisely this that makes it a lovely play to watch.
Real-life marriage are complicated things, but look on the bright side: at least we don’t let writers decide what happens. Really, on this subject writers are the most hypocritical bunch. They’re all too happy to write stories of boy meets girl, girls meets boy, and they fall in love, get married and live happily ever after, and audiences lap it up. But what about if the couple start off married? It’s all lying and cheating and affairs and misery. Double standard or what? And soap writers are the worst offenders. Kat and Alfie were once the couple everyone wanted to get together against all odds, and as soon as they get married, it’s, well, the usual fate of soap marriages.
And so, it’s strange but true that John Godber’s September in the Rain stands out from the crowd for one reason: it’s a story about married couple Jack and Liz (John Thomson and Claire Swinney) who stay together loving each other their whole lives. The play takes place on their last holiday to Blackpool as pensioners, and goes back to their first as newlyweds. It’s a two-hander, with Jack and Liz narrating the story between them, with the difference that instead of looking back and holidays past, they look forward to holidays yet to come, with children and family delights. Normally, there would be an obvious criticism to make at this point: there is no room to keep the audience guessing. Forget the “will they won’t they” story – we already know the ending. But in this play, it doesn’t matter – indeed, this is a definitive part of the play.
Paddy Campbell’s Wet House at Live Theatre is a promising start. But in spite of this, I have some misgivings about Live’s influence.
Like most new writing theatres, Live Theatre wants to build up relationships with writers they can call their own. Lee Hall has a string of successes at Live, as shortly to be demonstrated by the upcoming re-run of one of his many successes, Cooking With Elvis. More recently, Lee Mattinson has been building up a respectable following. But they both had to start somewhere. Every established playwright was once an untested one where the theatre had to take a gamble and hope for the best. Live’s last gamble was Zoe Cooper with Nativities, which was sadly a disappointment. So now, step forward Paddy Campbell with Wet House. Like Nativities, this is a play largely drawn from personal experience. But whilst Nativities tried to make an interesting story out of office politics – not an easy choice of topic, it must be said – Wet House dwells on the more interesting, and much darker, topic of a hostel-cum-scrapheap for incurable alcoholics.
There is a cast of six: three care workers and three of the many residents. Helen (Jackie Lye) is a jaded care worker disillusioned by a management that cares more about targets than people. Mike (Chris Connell) is an equally jaded care worker and ex-squaddie, who thinks this whole thing is a waste of time. Enter new recruit Andy (Riley Jones) in an unplanned change of career direction after buggering up his arts history degree. Probably the most accurate description given of the place was “like Dignitas, but takes longer, and without the dignity”. But Mike is the sort of ex-squaddie who spent little time promoting peace and understanding in warzones and a lot of time dangling IRA suspects out of helicopters, and he takes his style with him to the Wet House. When a silly mistake by Andy provides Mike with an opportunity to inflict his DIY justice on a sex offender resident, Andy’s life progressively becomes unbearable.
I’m now taking a pause from my backlog of reviews (six plays down, two to go) to mention a couple of interesting developments from the Buxton Fringe.
Firstly, as widely speculated, it has been officially announced that the bulldozers aren’t moving into Pauper’s Pit next year after all, which means that this venue and the Barrel Room will be available for the 2014 Fringe after all. That bit we know for certain. Less certain is who, if anyone, will run it, because Tom and Yaz from Underground Venues were already hard at work making plans for 2014 on the assumption they would be moving. The last time I asked (at the Edinburgh Fringe in August) I was told they were “close to” making arrangements for next year, but they didn’t say what that was. And still no word from Underground Venues on web-page, Facebook, Twitter etc. I know that they are planning to open for entries next February, but entries where?
It’s a lottery as to whether a play you wrote still appeals generations later. Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts has stood the test of time well; less so for Susan Glaspell’s Springs Eternal.
Playwrights have different ways of measuring success. A big-hitter on the West End might measure success in ticket sales. A resident playwright at a subsidised regional theatre might measure success by the number of four- and five-star reviews in local papers. A pretentious and incomprehensible playwright might measure success by the approval they receive from other pretentious incomprehensible playwrights, who of course know better than anyone else, and a student group in wild overestimation of their own abilities might measure success by the number of plugs given by their mate who edits the theatre column on their student paper. But I firmly believe that what most playwrights really want is for people to look back at their plays, years or decades later, and say to each other “Wasn’t that good?”
If you want future generations to revere your work, the obvious thing you have to do is write something that’s good and preferably original. That’s firmly in your hands. But there is something else you have to do: you have to write something that people in the future relate to. And that is very much out of your hands and instead is pure guesswork. We cannot possibly predict how plays written today will fare in the 22nd century. But we can look back at plays written generations ago and see how they fare today. And from my recent theatre binge in London, I have two prime examples of old plays with differing fortunes.
The play that stands the test of time better is Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen in a 19th-century playwright, probably best known for A Doll’s House, a play was about a woman stuck in a marriage that looks happy on the outside but miserable on the inside. At first glance, this plot seems ordinary and unoriginal, until you look at the historical context of the time, where even contemplating the possibility that a marriage is less than okey-dokey was a scandal. Cue uproar from the respectable class – perhaps not the wisest move, because anyone today can tell you that foaming with anger over mildly contentious issues only encourages these people to do it again. But Ibsen’s follow-up, Ghosts, was no shock-for-the-sake-of-shock piece. His own words about the inevitable upcoming furore probably put it best:
“Ghosts will probably cause alarm in some circles, but that can’t be helped. If it didn’t, there would be no necessity for having written it.”
Four Ayckbourn plays have been on for this summer’s season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Different plays will suit different people, but if you can only pick one, Time of My Life was the best.
When Alan Ayckbourn announced his retirement as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 2009, some people incorrectly thought that meant he was giving up the writing and directing too. This wasn’t the case at all; the Stephen Joseph Theatre had always done a mixture of Ayckbourn plays and other people’s, and Ayckbourn was going to continue writing and directing. The only change was that he was handing over the artistic programme to someone else, and in effect, it wasn’t so much the departure of Ayckbourn but the arrival of Chris Monks. Nevertheless, Ayckbourn did use the opportunity to take the occasional play of his elsewhere, such as the Orange Tree in Richmond and the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. One might even think he’s use the opportunity to take things easy.
But this year, not a chance. Since his retirement, Ayckbourn has done one new play and one revival each year, and this year, he’s taken on the lunchtime one-act plays as well. Far from Ayckbourn having a breather, instead Chris Monks is using Ayckbourn as a break from his own (admittedly very busy) schedule. So the summer 2013 season is a revival of the classic Time of My Life, new play Arrivals and Departures, and a pair of one-acts known collectively as Farcicals.
Out of the four plays on offer, I think I’d go for Time of My Life as the play most worth seeing. I’d previously read this as a script, and I wasn’t convinced this would work as a play. But, like last year’s Absurd Person Singular, having now seen it on stage, my doubts are settled. It may not be one a Ayckbourn’s most well-known plays, or one of his most innovative. But it is easily one of his saddest plays. There is nothing unusually distressing or harrowing about the play – just a beginning where a seemingly happy family share a perfect moment in time, and wondering how this could possibly fall apart the way it does.