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.
After an introduction from an elderly Jack and Liz, we start with a younger Jack and Liz about to set off in the car, bickering over the most trivial matters. Liz won’t go if the house isn’t tidy, and Jack is still sulking over last year’s trip on the bus. Countless times Liz says she’s not going. Jack locks the keys in the car. If this was a soap, or even the beginning of a typical Ayckbourn play, this would be the sowing the seeds of a painful marriage breakdown later. But as we know they stay together, what we have instead is a lovely, gentle and reassuring play, where all these tiffs sort themselves out in the end. Or do they? On the beach, a silly petty argument where Liz tells Jack to take of his shoes in the beach blows up and Liz decides she’s had enough – not just the holiday, the whole marriage. But this, too, is nothing. They’re just the kind of couple who have those bust-ups all the time, then make up and move on.
It’s a play that is very much modelled on John Godber’s real grandparents, also called Jack and Liz. Just in case anyone thinks this sounds familiar – yes, you are thinking of Happy Jack, an earlier Godber play, and yes, the couple were also called Jack and Liz, because they too were modelled on the same grandparents. This means that September in the Rain is arguably a rehash of Happy Jack, but that’s okay; if you wrote a very early play before you were a megastar, it seems fair enough that you should be allowed another go of the same idea (not that there was anything particularly wrong with the first play, which is also lovely). The main difference between the two is that this goes into much more detail about the week-long family holiday to Blackpool, faithfully recreating the days when expectations on holidays were very different, but they were still proper holidays.
There is one final observation I have about this production (which I saw at Darlington). I have nothing to fault with it, and wouldn’t expect to – Godber is directing his own play, and he’s had plenty of time to get it perfect. And commercially, it’s got everything going for it – it’s a tried and tested play by a well-known author; Thomson and Swinney are about as high-profile as can be (and yet do their jobs properly as actors, rather than just cash in an a status as TV celebs); and it got a lot of publicity prior to the national tour. And yet the closest the tour got to London was a one-week stint in Richmond-upon-Thames. Had this done a stint in the West End, it doubtless would have been a commercial success. So why not?
The answer, I suspect, is that John Godber doesn’t seem to have a flattering view of the West End, not so long ago describing it as part of a soap star circuit via Strictly Come Dancing on Ice Factor. And I’ve heard anecdotally that Godber’s opinions of West End critics aren’t much better, with him feeling that they don’t get his work. I’ll leave it up to West End critics to defend themselves on that, but I can certainly see why he wasn’t prepared to show his work to a bunch expecting plays that start with a married couple to end in misery and despair. Ayckbourn’s opinion of the West End are equally unflattering. West End producers might want to look into this. If the two leading playwrights don’t want to go to the West End, something is not going right.