Unlike many Godber plays, The Empty Nesters’ Club is very much a niche play. But if you’re in the niche of empty nesters, you won’t be disappointed.
Since leaving Hull Truck, John Godber has, if anything, got busier. Once I made an effort to catch all his plays; now there’s so many productions coming out thick and fast I often leave it until the second tour to know if it’s worth watching. The latest show on its second tour is The Empty Nesters’ Club, a play about what happens to Vicky and Phil when their only child Millie (played by Godber’s real daughter Martha) goes to university.
Presented as a meeting of the Empty Nesters’ Club, a support group created by Vicky, she tells the story of her own daughter. The story begins with the life of typical parents of a sixth-former, working hard as a taxi service for their daughter, givng her a freedom but secretly staying awake in bed until she comes home. Being unable to resist telling everyone she’s got an offer from Oxford. (She goes to UCL instead, but that story thread will become relevant later.) All busy until the drive home from her new home – and suddenly they don’t know what to do with themselves.
This play has a similar appeal to Shafted!, which toured this time last year. Telling the story of a colliery couple after the defeat of the miners’ strike, clearly this was very popular with people who’d been there; not because it particularly took sides, but because people related to the story of what happened in the following three decades. A similar appeal is at play here: the audience was almost entirely people old enough to have been through Phil and Vicky’s experience.
But as someone not in the target audience, I found it hard to know what to make of it. Maybe I was missing something, but the story seems to meander along without any clear direction to it. Now, this format has worked for Godber before – not a lot happened in September in the Rain other than a working-class couple enjoying a holiday in Blackpool – but the play had a clear structure to it, with a natural point for it to begin and end. This play, however, felt more like a collection of events on a similar theme without any clear direction of where the story was going.
One thing I couldn’t work out was whether this was supposed to be Millie’s story or the parents’ story. I’d have assumed the latter, but the bit where Millie drops out of university altogether felt like the worst of both worlds, distracting from the parents’ story without really explaining what made her do that. Her weird bass guitar / beat poetry act Millie takes round clubs did have some promise when she talks about witnessing the strains on her parents’ marriage, but this was only touched one, and perhaps a missed opportunity for a story arc. I also wasn’t convinced about the self-referential nature where Vicky spends so much time setting up this Empty Nesters’ Club. Whilst not implausible, it’s an unusual thing for a parent to do, and it didn’t seem right for a play that’s supposed to be about an ordinary couple who everyone relates to.
However, the saving grace for this play came in an unexpected way. I opted to stay at my Mum’s, not wishing to cross Middlesbrough on a freezing pouring February night. Normally I wouldn’t bore you with my housekeeping arrangements, but on this occasion it’s relevant because we discussed the play afterwards, and she talked about the experience for her. And here’s the thing: pretty much every time she talked about either her own experiences or the experiences of her friends and neighbours who went through the same thing, I could identify a similar moment in the play. Quite a lot of stories in the real world of parents suddenly finding they’d lost a purpose in life. No finer evidence needed that Godber really knows his stuff here.
The Empty Nesters’ Club is very much a play for empty nesters to relate to; if you’ve not been there yourself, you probably won’t connect quite so much. That’s not to say you won’t connect at all. If you’ve been on the other end on this and not really thought about the effect it had on your parents, it can strike a chord that way. And for the youngest audience, there’s some fitting modern references to communicating with your parents solely through emojis, and texting your parents out of the blue whilst they’re on holiday to ask if you can take a paracetemol after a lemsip. But on the whole, it’s very much a niche play – and that’s a pity because it could have been more than that – but it’s a niche it serves well.