John Godber Company in Living On Fresh Air, striding out at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, tonight until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 1.30pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com
JOHN Godber likes to put the physical in his plays, from men’s Rugby League to ladies’ rugby sevens, judo to weightlifting, skiing to crown bowls, cycling to hill walking… or the sheer physicality of the clashing doormen in Bouncers. Action theatre as the academics call it.
Walking, in pursuit of exercise under Covid restrictions, grew in popularity beyond Alfred Wainwright devotees. On one such pandemic perambulation, your reviewer bumped into – well, kept a responsible social distance from – John Godber and wife Jane Thornton on the waterside of Pocklington Canal.
“Must be plenty of material for a play about Covid-19, John?”. “No comedy there,” ruled out Godber. So, maybe not Covid (although it does feature prominently in his revamp of Teechers Leavers ’22) but walking now lies at the heart of Living On Fresh Air, as John and Jane take to the stage together again, just as they did in recent years in Shafted, Scary Bikers and Sunny Side Up.
Presented by the John Godber Company in association with Harrogate Theatre, Godber’s state-of-the-nation report and all’s-not-well Orwellian look into the future already has had a run-out in the reviving spa town after a preview week at Beverley’s East Riding Theatre in late-March.
Now Living On Fresh Air is going for a bracing stretch on the coast, camping out in the Round from tonight at the SJT. It opens with Godber and Thornton’s newly retired Yorkshire couple Dave and Caroline out of puff as they reach the peak of Scafell Pike.
It will be all down hill from there, for Britain, for Dave and Caroline’s retirement plans, but not for the play, a grouchily humorous outpouring of present frustrations, doom-and-gloom whither-next forecasts and forlorn, probably futile forewarnings amid Godber’s despair at how we have gone from the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK to apathy at the decay.
In a typically conversational Godber play of direct address to the audience and chatter between the affable, head-shaking couple, full of anecdotal snapshots, we learn that Dave and Caroline had everything they ever wanted: nice house, hot tub, small mortgage, a few savings and a new smart meter.
However, the plug is pulled from the hot tub (er, do hot tubs have plugs?) by the double whammy of Covid and its equally unwelcome new next-door neighbour, the cost-of-living crisis.
Their middle-aged son (Peter McMillan) moves back home, bills are rising faster than Boris Johnson’s fat cheques on the speaker circuit, and so is the temperature (that other crisis of the climate variety). Peace and quiet, going, money, going, tub gone.
Better take to the hills, they decide, to live on fresh air, wrapped up against the elements, in the Dales and the Lakes and on Scafell Pike alike on Graham Kirk’s set, but even that has a sting in the tale once Godber projects into the not-too-distant future. (Just as Alan Ayckbourn is doing likewise, by the way, in his two imminent premieres, Welcome To The Family, at The Old Laundry, Bowness-on-Windermere, from May 12 to 27, and Constant Companions at his regular stamping ground of the SJT from September 7 to October 7).
Ten years from now, as his by-now septuagenarian couple reveals, Godber predicts people will be living in containers in London; the arts will have been suppressed; health care privatised; fat cats will be even fatter; utilities bills ever higher, and roaming charges will apply, not to using mobile phones abroad, but to walking in beautiful public spaces.
Is this a joke? A tragicomedy, more like. Or a farce too serious to be funny, although there is observant, blunt but sharp Yorkshire humour aplenty here too.
Does a playwright need to offer hope? No? Does he have a duty to offer answers? No. McCartney once sang “I admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time”, only for Lennon to counter acidly “It can’t get no worse”, but now Godber believes it can and it will. No sign of a tide turning, or even a voice turning against the tide; no raging against the dying of the light; no wise Shakespearean Fool on the hill. Only Cassandra.
Co-directed briskly by Godber and Neil Sissons, you can’t call it a cautionary tale because Godber foresees no-one breaking the shackles of apathy. What lies in store? Struggles to pull on your socks as you age is just the start. Tough as old boots they may be, but weary walkers Dave and Caroline have too many mountains to climb, and so do we all.