September 2022 roundup: Sugar Baby and more

Skip to: Sugar Baby, Shakers, Brassed Off

So fringe season is over and it’s back to local plays. I saw three play in September, all bringing stories from outside the area into the north east in different ways: a straight revival, an ambitious update, and a challenging adaptation. The result vary, so let’s see how they do.

Sugar Baby

So we begin with a play at Alphabetti. Although Alphabetti theatre has made the three-week run the norm, it varies where the plays come from. Some are new plays by local artists, but this one is a revival of a play by Welsh playwright Alan Harris. It was also premiered at Paines Plough’s Roundabout at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. Having been encouraged to check out what they do in Edinburgh, this was a good opportunity for a catch up.

On the face of it, Sugar Baby could be a thriller. Marc is trying to clear some debts with loan shark Oggy. Lisa also owes Marc money, and is paying her debts by being his sugar baby. Unknown to Oggy, however, Lisa has always has the hots for Marc. That in itself could make a decent thriller. However, the twist to all of this is that 1) it all takes place in the same suburb of Cardiff and 2) everybody in this story seems to have gone to the same school, which just makes it all the more awkward. This balances up the thriller with comedy. The third part to to story, however, is an unexpected poignancy. Marc is trying to pay off his dad’s debts, but it barely registers at the beginning of the play that he has no contact with his estranged mother. When circumstance forces him to come to her for help, there are touching moments in an otherwise madcap about reconnecting with someone you cut out of your life.

The play is a good all-rounder. As well as straddling genres so well, Alan Harris’s writing is sharp and witty, always keeping up the pace, occasionally introducing moments of surrealism, but never one forcing characters to do implausible things for the sake of either plot or jokes. Natasha Haws does a fine job of directing this, and Ben Gettins nails the part of Marc perfectly. I don’t think there was a weak link anywhere amongst the team, but I was particularly impressed with Matt Jamie’s projections on the walls. It wasn’t just the technical skill for doing this, but also the styling way it was done. I don’t know how much of this was the idea of the production and how much was stated in the script, but this is one of the times where simplicity works so well.

There’s just one small irritation. I can’t remember to Alphabetti has reconfigured its seating, but there is a corner with filled in seating. As anyone used to a thrust stage knows, corners with aisles for seating are a good spot to face inwards to the stage, so that you completely have you back to no-one – but unfortunately I was sitting in that corner and spent a lot of time looking at Ben Gettin’s back. But that’s only a small issue. It’s a fun play more than anything challenging, but it’s is a very enjoyable read. Sugar Baby finishes this week and it’s work catching if you can.

Sugar Baby continues until 8th October at Alphabetti Theatre.

Shakers: under new management

Now, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Shakers is famous for being the female version of Bouncers, with John Godber this time co-writing the play with his wife, Jane Thornton. However, the focus is quite different. Ralph, Judd, Les and Lucky Eric are quite content to hand around the door of a seedy nightclub looking moderately intimidating, but that’s not an option for cocktail waitress Adele, Mel, Carol and Nicky. They have to be nice to all the customers even though many of them treat the four like shit. The inspiration for the play was the camaraderie that workers in these jobs develop when the going gets tough (something I can vouch for based on conversations I’ve had with people in these jobs for real).

However, the difference is with how the play is updated. Godber tweaks Bouncers every time he produces it, but the story is broadly the same. Jane Thornton makes the point that the lot of these waitresses hasn’t changed much either, which may well be true – however, what has changed is that this is being talked about a lot more. At the time this was written, it passed without comment that bar workers would walk home alone in the early hours – today, that is a hot topic of debate. Shakers bar, however, is stubbornly refusing to move with the times, with managers sodding off before the going gets tough, and no money on door staff – and customers who do not, or will not, think about that these three (the cast cut from four in the original) what they have to put up with.

I’m sold on the idea, there’s clearly a lot to be done with a reboot. What I’m not quite so sold on, however, was doing this as an update rather than a sequel. Some of the things translate well. For example, the group of party girls out on the lash (like Bouncers, the cast play all the parts of the people going in and out), are now a group of teachers on the lash, only to run to a group of their pupils taking pictures of them disgracing themselves. At least you never had to worry about camera phones and the internet in 1984. Other times, however, the updates feel like a bolt-on. There is a discussion of the Ask for Angela posters in the toilets – but nothing comes of that.

Which is why I’m wondering if Godber and Thornton would have been better off doing this as a new play. Keep the play format, keep the shitty conditions, but do a new set of stories to fit around the issues we know today rather than retrofit the old stories. What if someone came to the bar as actually did ask for “Angela”? We’ve already established this bar doesn’t care enough about safety to bother with security – how are Adele, Nicky and Mel meant to confront her possibly violent bad date? It was a good time to choose to revive Shakers and it’s worth catching on tour, but maybe this would be had the most impact as Shakers 2. Next time, perhaps.

Brassed Off

And finally, on to the Gala Theatre’s flagship production for the year. In some ways, this was a safe bet: anything based on the legendary 1996 film ought to be an guaranteed draw, and although the film was set in the Yorkshire coalfield, it could just as easily have taken place in County Durham, hence the logical change of location. In other ways, however, it’s a very ambitious thing to take on: Mark Herman’s script is a very cinematic script with numerous cutscenes impossible to reproduce on stage. There is also the massive logistical challenge of how to include a brass band, which, as you may recall, has a pretty central role in the story. Two colliery bands played Grimethorpe Colliery Band; I saw Fisburn on the night I went, it’s vital for the band to have a decent standard of playing if we’re to believe they’re going to win at the Albert Hall, and they did they job. Even so, putting this all together on stage is a logistical nightmare. Fortunately, the Gala Theatre can call on Conrad Nelson, who has a long track record with Northern Broadsides of making polished productions out of logistical nightmares. This is the sort of script where it’s goes unnoticed when you do things right and sticks out like a sore thumb, so the fact that this all went off without a hitch is a credit to the production.

However – and apologies for putting a hot take here – I am not taken in with Paul Allen’s stage adaptation. This script came two years after the film and has run and run, so he must be doing something right (and his biography of Alan Ayckbourn is excellent). But I’m not convinced Allen’s style of writing is suited to Mark Herman’s style of cinematography; nor am I convinced does it go that well with Conrad Nelson’s strengths as a director. To appreciate how cinematic Mark Herman’s screenplays are, it’s worth seeing both the stage and screen versions of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Both versions are great, but Herman’s screen play of Jim Cartwright’s stage play is a very different experience. Doing it the other way round and changing his script from screen play to stage play isn’t straightforward, because some of the most memorable moments of the film are a single line delivered in a single frame – the union official’s reading out of the ballot result being one that spring to mind. Paul Allen, however, is a much more static play with longer scenes and semi-permanent sets taking up the stage. In addition, the script seems to flesh out chunks of the story that didn’t need fleshing out, and sometimes knocks things out of balance. Andy and Gloria were a believable couple in the film, but in the stage script they spend 90% of their time bickering about pit closure politics and the chemistry is lost.

I know Conrad Nelson (whose previous work I’ve loved) isn’t going to agree with my verdict of the script. He’d previously directed it for the New Vic and wouldn’t have done it again if he didn’t believe in it. There are some touches in the play that I like: the men queuing up to vote in the pit closure ballot making the most important decision of their lives was a good addition, where body language said more than any words. Credit goes to Maddie Hanson for doing what Tara Fitzgerald didn’t and play her own flugelhorn. The Gala’s production does achieve every it set out to do, of bringing a story into County Durham, involving local people who otherwise wouldn’t take part in theatre, and drawing in a good audience, but it’s harder to please someone who loves the original film and carries forward the sky-high expectations. What’s frustrating is that I reckon his usual collaborator and wife Deborah McAndrew could have done an excellent adaptation if her track record of previous adaptations is anything to go by. Probably impossible to go down this route now, not without some massive arguments, but should they ever gown down that route, I’ll be up for it.

The outdoor era: Moby Dick and Coppelia

Skip to: Moby Dick, Coppelia

So now that I finally have the time to do this, I intend to do a big catch-up on my reviews. Now, the festival fringe and the West End may have hit the ground running in the spring and summer, but most regional theatres played it safe and waited for the autumn. However, there was a bit of theatre activity in the regions, and a lot of it was focused on outdoor performances. Although there was never a point in 2021 where outdoor theatre was permitted but indoor wasn’t, those performances in 2020 that went ahead outdoors did quite well and for some the idea stuck.

A lot of the outdoor performances happened at the Festival Fringes, particularly Brighton – those I am covering in their respective roundups. But apart from that, there were two performances that particularly caught my eye.

Moby Dick

Outdoor staging of Moby DickThe John Godber Company has been one of the most determined companies to perform on in any way they can, although it’s fair to say they were at a bit of an advantage here. With the Godber family themselves taking on so many roles over the years, it was an easy matter to put on a family event with Sunny Side Up. I would like to have told you about that, but the performances were very popular and sold out quickly. However, not all John Godber performances are family affairs, at to get back into the swing of things this year, they put on one of their largest productions to date at Hull Marina.

The first thing I will say is how much I love the venue. Stage @ The Dock came about from a regeneration of the Marina and presumably came about in part from Hull as 2017 City of Culture. Obviously it’s at the mercy of the weather, but on a balmy evening it’s a great place to see an outdoor-set play. With the John Godber Company having helped bring this space into the spotlight, I hope it’s not forgotten about now that indoor theatre has got going again.

For once, a John Godber Company play features writing from someone other than a Godber, for this is a collaboration with Nick Lane, who is writing most of Blackeyed Theatre’s current plays as well as many of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Christmas plays. The challenge of most adaptations is choosing what to keep in and what to leave out: with the exception of the shortest of short stories, it’s near-impossible to stick to original plot point by point and hope to be done in two hours – and certainly not Herman Mellville’s epic of a book. The best focus I think you can put on a stage version of Moby Dick is the suicidally dangerous obsession of Captain Ahab – and that’s precisely what is done here.

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Educating Rita and September in the Rain

Two productions of classic plays caught my eye this month. One was a headline production at the Gala Theatre, continuing its transition back to a producing theatre. The other was a smaller-scale production down in Yorkshire. Both are excellent scripts where there is little the producing company can do other than be faithful to it, so let’s get straight on with how they did.

Skip to: Educating Rita, September in the Rain

Educating Rita


Starting at the Gala, this is their second in-house production since they restarted this last year with The Fighting Bradfords (or the third if you count their small-scale immersive piece No Turning Back). Last year it was new writing, this year it’s the revival of a classic. Not everyone who came to see last year’s friends will be interested in a revival; but there again, not everyone who watches a tried and tested play wants the lottery of a new work. As the only major theatre in Durham, I think it’s fair enough to have different plays appealing to different audiences. “Rita” (not really her name, but that becomes relevant later) signs on with the Open University wanting to learn more about literature. Shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. The barrier is partly snobbery – even supportive tutor Frank sometimes lets his casual prejudices slip in – and partly her own fear of this snobbery, but it’s mostly the inverse snobbery of friends, family, and husband who all expect her to stop learning and have a baby like everyone else. Continue reading

The Empty Nesters’ Show

The goodbye scene in The Empty Nesters Club

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. Continue reading

Shafted: 2016 is the new 1985

John Godber’s latest play Shafted might not be his most distinctive play, but it’s another thoughtful play depicting an issue he cares about.

Godber and Thornton as Harry and Dot, complete with gnomeJohn Godber’s career has taken and interesting turn ever since he set up his own “John Godber Company”. After departing Hull Truck in a moderately acrimonious manner, he’s rebuilt bridges very quickly and happily tours there. He’s very supportive of amateur productions of his work when many other playwright are snotty about amateur efforts. But the most interesting development is the emergence of what some call a new “angry” Godber. I’m not sure I’d use the word “angry” myself – but his recent plays speak out on a lot of issues, and not whichever issues are the latest bandwagon, but whichever issues that are important to him. He particularly got my respect for Poles Apart where he challenges the disdainful attitude many supposedly left-wing artists have to the working class they’re supposed to champion.

But the Godber play that’s been getting the most attention is Shafted!, which, for a change, Godber wrote for himself and his wife to perform. It had a very successful run last year, and this year Godber and Thornton are on their lap of honour. This time, it’s about what happens to couple Harry and Dot after the defeat of the miners’ strike. But if you’re hoping it’s a platform for Godber to rant about Thatcher, this is not the play for you – although he’s broadly sympathietic to the mining communities such as the one he grew up in, he’s not interested in romanticising one side and vilifying the other. This follows what happens on a more human level. Continue reading

Poles Apart is worlds apart

Three scaffolders peering over a posh executive director and actress

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. Continue reading

Teechers and Donna Disco

(Prologue: Chris Neville-Smith sits as his computer, thinking that he really can’t be arsed to write two articles about two plays he’s already seen. “What I really need” he thinks, “is a contrived theme to connect the two together.” Suddenly, he realises they’re both set in schools. Problem solved.)

Who would be a secondary school teacher? Here you are, trying to help teenagers learn the stuff they ought to know unless they want to spend the next forty years in the beef caracass factory, and what do they do? Have a riot. And who would be a secondary school pupil? It’s like Lord of the Flies, but with thick oversized schoolboys in charge. The only consolation is that it gives teachers and pupils alike the chance to write plays about what schools are like.

So two plays that are doing to rounds now are Teechers and Donna Disco. Both plays are smash hits, and having seen them before I can vouch they are smash hits for a reason. I also had high expectations for the companies producing them. And so, in perhaps the least surprising turn of events in the history of the blog, both productions were exactly as good as I was expecting. I won’t give a detailed appraisal of the plays as they’re already getting praise from pretty every Tom, Dick and Harry, but I’ll give a quick run-down. Continue reading

September in the Rain: the opposite of Eastenders

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.

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If playing rugby isn’t masochistic enough …

Muddy Cows is the latest of John Godber’s sports plays. It’s well-written and well-directed, but its mainly for the sports play niche.

The team in the dressing room from hell

I was almost tempted to dismiss this play out of hand. What a far-fetched idea! Seven people actually choose to play rugby? I personally cannot think of anything I’d less rather do ever since this was inflicted on me in PE, but to some people this sport is their passion. But, evidently, getting flattened on a muddy field each week isn’t enough punishment for some. If you’re a true masochist, you captain the team, and add all the stress of running the team. That is the life of Maggie Deakin (Liz Carling), captain of the women’s second fifteen at the local Rugby Union club.

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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.

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