HT Rep in Men Of The World, Harrogate Theatre/Phil & Ben Productions, at Harrogate Theatre tonight, 7.30pm; tomorrow, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk
WEEK three of HT Rep’s season of Three Plays, Three Weeks, One Cast marks the 20th anniversary of John Godber’s melancholic comedy road trip.
Mirroring the old repertory days of a company of actors taking on myriad roles in quick succession, Men Of The World takes that opportunity even further by having Paul Hawkyard, Robin Simpson and Janine Mellor play not only northern coach drivers Stick, Larry and Frankie but also everyone who hops on board.
Godber has them preparing for a mystery trip to Scarborough (ah, the mystery of Scarborough) , but this turns out to be trip down memory lane, in the nostalgic tradition of Godber’s Happy Jack and September In The Rain.
He has always liked to take people out of their comfort zone, to make them travel for new experiences, be they Bet and Al heading to the French capital in April In Paris, the skiing novices in On The Piste or ex-miner Don and teacher Carol on a quarrelsome tandem trip to Europe in Scary Bikers.
The difference here is that these are two men and one woman of the world are world-weary: Stick, Larry and Frankie have been there, done that, discarded the T-shirt. Their routes home and abroad are so familiar, the quirks of their passengers likewise, so much so, they have given them nicknames.
Yet Godber’s tone is one of compassion, wonder, whimsy and celebration as they recount the memorable trips that add up to “the small, often overlooked moments of magic in our lives”.
Director Amie Burns Walker and designer Geoff Gilder have given Men Of The World a somewhat abstract, even surrealist air, reminiscent of a circus or cabaret tent with striped tarpaulin, to either side of a white-lined road that climbs to the blue yonder. Bags of luggage and a step ladder complete the scene. Don’t take it too literally: this is theatre; this is performance; they are storytellers with a cabaret flourish.
Indeed, Hawkyard, Simpson and Mellor are so relaxed, so attuned to performing on the hoof in pantomime, that when they fluff the opening, they break theatre’s fourth wall, laugh about it and start again, spinning off and back on their carousel, forever carrying luggage.
Such is their comic craft that they can be on both sides of the story, looking in and taking part, and yet still they shock you on occasion: when Simpson’s heavy-smoking Larry, on the cusp of retirement, blows his big moment in clumsily chatting up Mellor’s Frankie after six years of working together, and later when veteran Larry and cocky Stick have their flare-up, recalling Lucky Eric and Judd’s showdown in Bouncers. For all the comedy, these two shuddering moments bring out the very best in the trio.
No matter where they go, Stick, Larry and Frankie and their passengers are forever English, northern, Yorkshire, their character not so much altered by their experiences but reaffirmed by them instead.
To go with the eye for the absurd, there is a bleakness to Men Of The World too, the shadow of approaching death, the third-age travels being accompanied by bellyaches and pains. That’s why the frustrated, even contemptuous Stick prefers taking young’uns to the Costa del Sol, whereas steady-away Larry is a romantic at heart, with his love of Mario Lanzo and affection for ordinary folk taking trips out of the ordinary in later life to rekindle something inside.
Frankie is the stoical, unflappable, wise one, not at a crossroads, unlike Larry, but going wherever life’s road may take her.
Godber’s way of catching characters just so, to make them recognisable yet more than caricatures, is brought to life in Simpson, Hawkyard and Mellor’s realisation of the passengers, from the Beverley Sisters (from Beverley) to the Marx Brothers (a funnier, gloomier Last Of The Summer Wine trio) and double acts Arsenic & Old Lace to Mack & Mabel. A flat cap, a scarf, a mannerism, is all it takes to evoke each character, like a sketch artist.
Godber, by the way, loved this production so much – “they really caught the decaying humanity,” he said – that he will be back, bringing his dad to a performance. No better recommendation required.