John Godber’s latest play might not have the most interesting story, but it is one of the most interesting plays from a writer who has a lot to say.
Alan Ayckbourn once suggested that the reason that you get very few working class people at the theatre is that they think they’ll be looked down on. I think he may have hit the nail on the head – theatre is a middle-class dominated pursuit, and for reasons I’ll go into shortly, middle-class writers and directors can be pretty clueless at depicting the working class. Even Ayckbourn himself doesn’t even try to take this on and plays it safe with the middle classes. But one playwright with a working-class background through and through is John Godber. He writes about this a lot, and he neither romanticises it nor disparages where he came from. From the simple expectations of a holiday in September in the Rain to the disintegration of mining communities in Our House to nightlife in Bouncers (nightlife, to be fair, is about equally hellish across the class spectrum but you get the idea), he’s a master of writing about what he knows.
But if there’s one change I’ve noticed in Godber in the last couple of years, it’s been that that’s he’s getting angrier – but not in the way you might expect. Whilst many writers have directed their ire at the bastard cuts from the bastard Tories, Godber has focused heavily on the very people who claim to be standing up for the working class – and yet look down on the people they’re meant to be standing up for. I first noticed this theme in Lost and Found two years ago, and now it’s back with a vengeance for Poles Apart.
First thing’s first: what this play isn’t about. I knew the play involved Polish scaffolders (scaffold Pole, Pole nationality, geddit?), and I was expecting this play to be about relations between the white working class and Eastern Europe immigrants. That would have made a very interesting play – and I’m sure Godber could have done a good job of it – but that’s not really what the play is about. There is an incidental reference, with one of the three scaffolders being Polish, but he’s far more at home doing Chippendale-style Pole dancing to passing ladies than espousing the benefits on freedom of movement in the EU. No, this story is about the tensions between the three scaffolders and the champagne-socialist executive director of the theatre where they’re working.
If there’s one criticism I have of John Godber, he overdoes writing about being a writer and theatre in general, so I was a bit sceptical about yet another play with a theatre theme. On this occasion, however, setting it in a theatre was integral to the concept. Theatre is a strange world, where practically everyone consider themselves left-wing, but they scarcely mix the working class they are supposed to champion. In this case, at least, the executive director and the actress for tonight’s play have very unflattering views of the three men doing the scaffolding. Oh, they’re proud to be pro-working class, but why can’t the working class be more like people who read the Guardian? Although, in their defence, the scaffolders don’t exactly endear themselves to their hosts, blaring music, swearing, and asking the actress from the telly if she’s getting her kit off in the play.
But whilst neither “side” is portrayed that sympathetically to start with, there’s more to them that first meets each other’s eyes.. Behind their brash exterior, the scaffolders in-fight, their business is struggling, and even a broken down vehicle that may stop them getting to their next job in time could be catastrophic. And the theatre is also struggling that to the cuts, and things are so bad the executive director hasn’t taken a salary for six months, and the actress is sinking her own money into the production out of loyalty to her home town. The message, it seems, is that we should realise we have more in common than makes us different.
Poles Apart doesn’t have the most memorable of storylines compare to some of Godber’s greatest works, and as such, I wouldn’t rate it as one of his best plays. But it is certainly one of his most interesting. John Godber has said there’s an angry side of him that’s coming out in his latest works, but most “angry” writing these days seems to be on a pre-determined list of causes that are fashionable to be angry about right now. Not here. Poles Apart could mark a watershed where Godber becomes more outspoken, but he won’t be leaping on any bandwagons. Whatever he chooses to say, it’ll be what he believes in.