“BUMPING” into Britain’s second most performed living playwright as paths crossed while stretching a lockdown leg at Pocklington Canal Head in early July, one question had to be asked.
“Must be plenty of material for a play about Covid-19, John?”. “No comedy there,” replied John Godber.
Nevertheless, the waiting for Godber’s new play is over. Presented by the John Godber Company and Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, the humorous and moving Sunny Side Up! will open in The Round at the SJT tonight (October 28).
Depicting a struggling Yorkshire coast B&B and the people who run it, the world premiere of the former Hull Truck artistic director’s holiday drama will be a family affair, starring the Godber lockdown bubble of writer-director John, wife Jane Thornton and daughter Martha. Elder daughter Elizabeth – who has just enrolled for a PhD at Hull University, studying the poetry of Emily Dickinson, by the way – is participating too as the company stage manager.
“What a strange time it’s been,” says John. “Shortly after I saw you at Pocklington Canal Head, I got a phone-call from Paul Robinson [the SJT artistic director] saying, ‘We want to open in October; I know you’re in a social bubble with Jane, Liz and Martha; would you like to do a new play together this autumn?
“It was like winning the Oscar, to have the opportunity to do your trade again – we’ve not received any Arts Council funding – and just to be clear, we could only do it in these circumstances as a family bubble.”
Reflecting on life in lockdown and beyond in Covid-19 2020, John says: “If we are following the science, which science is it? Watching all the news coverage on TV ends up making you feel ill,” says John.
“We live in a significant property with a lot of space but we’re still going mad, climbing up the walls. What’s it like for those living in a cramped apartment with no garden in lockdown? It must be like [Jean-Paul] Sartre. Do politicians understand that?”
John, the son of an Upton miner, has “always voted Labour for lots of reasons”. “We know Covid has been a challenge, but the Government can find all this money for Test and Trace and to pay nine million people’s wages in furlough, yet what an own goal to refuse to support free meals for schoolchildren in the holidays,” he says.
Sunny Side Up! is not a political comment on Covid times, but more so on how we have reacted to lockdown. “When Paul asked me to write a play, we’d been doing lots of family walks, going to the coast, walking on bridal paths, by canals,” says John.
“I thought there might be something in thinking about what our seaside towns might look like to people going there for the first time or going back after a long time.
“You have to take Scarborough and Filey out of the equation, but I wondered what the function of our seaside towns and villages is. I think they remind us of where we’ve come from, in terms of families enjoying simpler times.”
Fraisthorpe Beach, four miles south of Bridlington, has been one such coastal haven for John. “Have you been there? Mile after mile after mile of unbroken sand, which is just amazing,” he says.
“We’ve started to look at places locally through Covid eyes. I’m certainly looking at simplicity in our lives now. In the early part of lockdown, going on walks from the house, you’d look at a field for the first time that we must have walked past for 30 years and you suddenly think how beautiful it is.
“Or through walking along the Pocklington Canal, you start looking at the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Pocklington at that time.”
Summing up his philosophy brought on by Covid restrictions, John says: “It’s not about regression; it’s about simplicity.”
This set him on the path of writing Sunny Side Up!, wherein struggling Yorkshire coast B&B proprietors Barney, Tina and daughter Cath share their stories of awkward clients, snooty relatives and eggs over easy in a “seaside rollercoaster that digs into what our ‘staycations’ are all about”.
“This is not a play about Covid, though it has references. It’s more about social mobility,” says John.
“Sunny Side is a fictitious East Coast Yorkshire resort that is so small, you wouldn’t find it on the map, where B&B owner Barney is very much a Brexiteer, a little Englander.
“Graham, a retired university pro-vice chancellor who’s done very nicely through education is invited there by his sister, Tina, and coming up 70 he’s going back to where he came from – a very ordinary background – but he’s never gone back since…until now.
“He sees it’s a place where they have turned the oxygen off. No jobs; no trains; two buses to get there; the nearest dual carriageway 15 miles away.
“But these are fantastic places, almost mythical, where the colouring and the sweep are incredible, so it’s a play about this guy coming to terms with ‘why haven’t I been back here, because it’s amazing?’. He realises his separation from his small-town roots doesn’t match with his reading of the world.”
A fast-moving one-act play, 64 minutes straight through, Sunny Side Up! is a “funny, fish-out-of-water story, but it has pathos and there’s magic realism too”, says John. “It’s not rubbing anyone’s nose in it, but those who get it will know what it’s about.
“You can go anywhere in the country and see places that are suffering, places that have been left behind, places that need water…but many of us wouldn’t spot a real person if we passed them in the street, like Graham wouldn’t.
“But here he’s confronted by people he thinks he’s been addressing [in his academic work], only to find he’s not been able to change that world. Just as the Westminster bubble dilutes the politicians from the reality.
“But having said that, this play is also a very humane, very touching, very funny story of a relationship between a brother and a sister.”
Against the backdrop of Covid-19 and renewed talk of a widening North-South divide, John says: “I think we are becoming divisive. There’s a line in the play that says, ‘we have to start again’. We’ve reached that point where we do have to re-start. I’m 64 now and you would have thought this would have been sorted out when we were younger men. Has it ossified, with social mobility no longer being a thing, but why?”
Rehearsed at home, Sunny Side Up! is the second John Godber work in lockdown. “The first one was in May, when I decided to write a 15-part radio drama for BBC Radio Humberside called Essentials, about a family needing to talk to each other,” says John.
“We recorded it in Liz’s walk-in wardrobe, with Martha’s boyfriend, Henry, doing the technical stuff, and we were all in each eight-minute episode.
“It was like The Archers, set around the family breakfast, with the father being a delivery driver for Tesco, delivering essentials.”
When the invitation came to write a play for the SJT, John initially saw it as a chance to “draw anything on the canvas” in the prevailing Covid circumstances. “It had a lot of politics in the early version, with them all saying ‘I think you’ll have a legal problem with that’, and I decided, ‘I don’t think people want to sit there in a mask with me ranting about Boris Johnson.”
Under social-distancing measures, the audience capacity is heavily reduced: a new experience for Godber. “It’s fascinating because I’ve had a career of trying to fill theatres, but now you don’t have to ‘fill’ theatres,” says John, whose seven SJT performances have sold out.
“So it’s a bit like the early stuff: Happy Jack, September In The Rain, which I was going back to with The Scary Bikers last year. It’s that meta thing: taking in politics, self-analysis, class, all neatly told with four chairs and a suitcase.”
Those four chairs and a suitcase will next travel to Hull, after Hull Truck artistic director Mark Babych asked Godber to bring Sunny Side Up! to his former stomping ground. “It’s like Back To The Future; all the props in a suitcase and all our stuff in the back of my car,” says John.
As for working in a family bubble: “Martha’s all over me like a rash about the play! She and Liz don’t let me get away with anything. I can take it from Jane, but now it’s from my kids too!”
John Godber Company in Sunny Side Up!, in The Round, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, October 28 to 31: 7.30pm, Wednesday; 1.30pm, 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. All sold out. Hull Truck Theatre, November 17 to 22: 7.30pm, Tuesday; 2pm and 7.30pm, Wednesday; 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday; 2pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01482 323638 or at hulltruck.co.uk/whats-on/drama/sunny-side-up/