REVIEW: Teechers Leavers ’22, Hull Truck Theatre and John Godber Company, at Hull Truck Theatre, term ends on June 11 *****

Teenage rampage: Martha Godber’s Hobby, left, Levi Payne’s Salty and Purvi Parmar’s Gail in Teechers Leavers ’22 at Hull Truck Theatre

ON learning that Gavin Wilkinson was to receive a Boris Johnson-garlanded knighthood, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson commented: “He left children to go hungry, created two years of complete chaos over exams and failed to get laptops out to kids struggling to learn during lockdowns.”

If reading her end-of-term report on Wilkinson’s “astonishing and disgraceful record” brings out feelings of anger all over again, then multiply that fury in John Godber’s 35th anniversary re-write of Teechers, his despairing 1987 tragi-comedy on the rotten state of state education.

To mark the 50th anniversary of his former Hull Truck stamping ground, he has revisited Teechers in the stultifying shadow of Covid, the encouragement of science and technology over the arts on the school curriculum and the never-ending systemic inequalities that divide swish private education establishments from state schools with leaking, outdated buildings.

Central character Salty, one of those pupils with no laptop, is doing his homework on his mobile phone: perhaps the most damning image in Teechers Leavers ’22.

Godber, the miner’s son from Upton, West Yorkshire, educated at Bretton Hall College and Leeds University, is a former teacher with not only Teechers to his name, but also Chalkface, the 1991 TV drama series charting the day-to-day events at a comprehensive school.

“How come people get education so wrong?” he said in an interview in 2008 when launching an earlier revival of his classroom comedy that dismissed the Labour Government’s latest proposed tinkering as nothing more than “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic”.

Lessons learned? Not since 1987, it would seem, as John Godber revisits Teechers to deliver an even more damning report

Labour Government, note. His righteous anger goes beyond party lines, even if, 14 years later, his frustration with England’s education system has reached boiling point under Tory rule. Exacerbated by the pandemic, state education equals: exam chaos, tech poverty, isolation, absenteeism, lost school hours, remote learning, the arts downgraded, children let down, he says.

Plus ca change, you might say. Teechers was rooted in Godber’s response to them-and-us education in the Thatcher years, but it does not feel a period piece at all, partly through grievances aplenty from 1987 still applying in  2022, and partly because of Godber’s extensive update.

His trademark fast-and-furious physical theatre style; his Brechtian love of breaking down theatre’s fourth wall; his deployment of a high-energy cast of only three to play multiple roles; his relish for social comment and his penchant for bloody-minded, bloody-nosed, raucous humour are all very much alive and kicking in Teechers Leavers ’22.  So too is preference for pathos over sentimentality.

Hull Truck artistic Mark Babych matches him stride for stride in his up-and-at’em direction, and 35 years since Godber himself played drama teacher Geoff Nixon, now his daughter Martha Godber is doing so, the role newly turned female.

Covid masks, Ofsted reports and a Partygate joke feature now, but funding shortages, baffling timetables, boring teachers and bored teenagers remain, as Martha Godber’s Hobby, Purvi Parmar’s Gail and Levi Payne’s Salty narrate the tale of their stultifying life at struggling comprehensive Whitewall College.

Set designer Caitlin Mawhinney splashes the set with bold colours, as a counter to the greyness that pervades the school, but if, in the words of Madness’s schoolroom anthem Baggy Trousers, there needs to be someone “trying different ways to make a difference to the days,” step forward new probationary teacher, Miss Nixon.

School uniformity? Not if Levi Payne’s Salty, Martha Godber’s Hobby and Purvi Parmar’s Gail have their way in Teechers Leavers ’22

Having seen off three previous drama teachers, scathing Salty and co are initially dismissive of the newcomer, but even if theatre has been relegated to an after-school option, Miss Nixon is not to be beaten.

The role previously had been played in more serious mode; Martha Godber makes her no-nonsense, but also more of a grouchy outsider, a lone voice, determined to help the three disillusioned teenage protagonists blossom.

Nixon remains John Godber’s voice too, calling for change, for better recognition of the importance of the arts in shaping young lives, but the ending becomes a more damning statement than ever with its abandonment of all hope.

Or maybe not. In his interview, Godber said if he were a young man today, he would still go into teaching, a profession that needs more Miss Nixons, more John Godbers.

Mark Babych and his cast, switching from role to role, sometimes even taking over each other’s roles, never letting the pace drop, dipping into rap, equally adept at troubled teenager and exasperated, exhausted teacher alike, make Godber’s school report all the more powerful. Oh, and amid the rage, it is seriously funny too.

Box office: 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk.

REVIEW: John Godber’s seaside last resort comedy, Sunny Side Up! ****

John Godber as taciturn B&B owner Barney in Godber’s coastal comedy Sunny Side Up!. Picture: Martha Godber

John Godber Company in Sunny Side Up!, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, tonight, 7.30pm; Hull Truck Theatre, November 1 to 6; 7.30pm; 2pm, Wednesday and Saturday. Box office: Scarborough, 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com; Hull, 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk

WHEN the Godber family presented last October’s premiere of Sunny Side Up! in their isolated North Sea bubble at Scarborough, the first sighting of the SJT audience in face masks prompted John Godber to say he thought he was in an operating theatre, not a theatre.

Unlike at many theatres, socially distanced seating prevails at the SJT, where wearing a mask is still the expectation, rather than the exception.

The Godbers, writer-director-actor John, wife Jane Thornton and daughter Martha Godber, remains the cast; her elder sister, Elizabeth, now studying at Hull University for a PhD in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, still finds time to be the company stage manager. Both sisters took the production pictures too.

What has changed? Sunny Side Up! is even better than it was a year ago – and longer too, with an interval inserted, more political grit, more comic interplay to go with the self-analysis and class wars, but still fast moving.

Godber has always been at his best when he is riled, questioning the status quo with Yorkshire frankness, shaking his head but finding humour as he observes British characteristics with befuddlement but a dart’s player’s accuracy, driven by a desire both for mischief making and for change.

Above all, an even stronger sense emerges of Godber commenting, not on the deathly march of Covid, nor the Government’s handling of the pandemic, but on its impact on our behaviour, our appreciation of people and nature around us, our re-evaluation of our neglected, suffering towns and forgotten, left-behind villages amid the expedient rise of the staycation.

Sunny Side Up! is billed as a “hilarious and moving account of a struggling Yorkshire coast B&B and the people who run it: down-to-earth proprietors Barney, Tina and daughter Cath and Tina as they share their stories of awkward clients, snooty relatives and eggs over easy” in Godber’s familiar conversational, pull-up-a-chair story-telling style.

Martha Godber’s affronted holiday-maker confronts John Godber’s retired academic in Sunny Side Up!. Picture: Elizabeth Godber

The focus, however, falls more on one of those “snooty relatives”, the fish-out-of-water Graham, Tina’s brother, who has taken up her invitation to bring his wife for a short break back at his roots, now that a foreign trip has been ruled out.

It is not so much that Graham was a big fish in a small pool, so much as that his academic prowess led him to other pools, culminating in his becoming a professor and university pro-vice chancellor, who wanted his own success to be a template for other working-class children to follow suit on a social-mobility conveyor belt. He has not been “back home” to this East Coast last resort for ages.

Graham (John Godber) has the big black car with tinted windows, the expensive shoes and the expensive food tastes; his wife (Thornton) has an MBE for her work in the public cause. She is invariably happy, wanting to stop for a sandwich break on a lay-by after only four miles; Graham is perennially unhappy; he would not be going at all, if it came down to choice rather than a sense of family duty.

Brexiteer Barney, who largely takes a back seat, out on errands, is no fan of Graham, while daughter Cath (Martha’s main role) has the bloody-minded, mischievous streak that Godber himself loves.

Consequently, she, more so than Tina and Barney, breaks down theatre’s fourth wall to engage directly with the audience, putting them on her side as she makes sure Graham’s visit is anything but easy over and comments on his wife always calling her “Catherine”, a name she has grown to dislike for its unnecessary floweriness.

There are echoes of September In The Rain and Happy Jack as Graham revisits his past, going fishing in one beautiful, tender scene, but there is no whiff of nostalgia here. Initially, he had laughed scornfully at the cramped, antiquated top-floor bedroom Tina had provided, but the more he sees, the more it sets off his frustration at such places being forgotten, under-funded, under-appreciated, in need of watering.

Yet he himself had left Sunny Side, forgotten it, and so Godber does not let that pathos go unchallenged, nor Graham’s despair at a pair of holidaying old miners spouting Yorkshire cliches (in a cameo by John and Jane not far removed from the old Four Yorkshiremen sketch from The At Last The 1948 Show and Monty Python).

Jane Thornton’s Tina and Martha Godber’s Cath in Sunny Side Up! Picture: Elizabeth Godber

In the defining scene, Martha Godber’s second principal character, a blunt, no-nonsense holiday-maker no longer able to afford Zante, confronts Graham as to why he did not come home to try to make a difference – to do his own version of levelling up – rather than preach from his academic high tower, out of touch and out of reach.

Godber and Graham are both over 65; both have aching knees, both are bright working-class lads with teaching in their locker; both always vote Labour; both want better for what is already there or once was there until the oxygen was switched off.

Graham has retired, Godber is anything but retired, and Sunny Side Up! is up there with his radical environmental satire Crown Prince and his post-mining drama Shafted! as the best of his 21st century writing. Godber at his most humane and touching but b****y funny too.

There is even magic realism in an encounter between Graham and his late mother (Martha again), her memory eroded by dementia, and moments of physical comedy in the Bouncers tradition as Graham, his wife and Cath climb the endless stairs without a stairwell in sight.

Four chairs and a suitcase, a miniature lighthouse, some rocks and a plastic seagull make up Graham Kirk’s set with familiar Godber economy. In that open space, with room to breathe in that sea air, the performances are terrific. Godber doing a Godber play, with innate comic timing, is always a joy; likewise, his stage partnership with wife Jane makes for a wonderfully forthright double act but one grounded in truthfulness as much as playfulness.

Martha, meanwhile, continues a run of stand-out performances this year in Godber’s Moby Dick at Stage@The Dock, Hull; as Olivia in Luke Adamson’s Twelfth Night at Selby RUFC and now her multi-roles in Sunny Side Up!, full of humour but poignant too. Never better than when the grounded Cath, unlike Graham in younger days, says she will not move on but will look to make Sunny Side a better B&B.

Godber is on such good form here, he even weaves his and Jane’s conversion to “sort-of veganism” into the play with a running in-joke where Cath offers up eggs sunny side up as the vegan breakfast option. Think about it!

Review by Charles Hutchinson

John Godber and Jane Thornton: “A wonderfully forthright double act but grounded in truthfulness as much as playfulness”. Picture: Martha Godber

John Godber’s B&B comedy Sunny Side Up! is up for a return to Stephen Joseph Theatre

John Godber and Jane Thornton premiering Sunny Side Up! at the Stephen Joseph Theatre last October. Picture: Martha Godber

THE John Godber Company returns to the Stephen Joseph Theatre next month with Sunny Side Up!, the coastal comedy premiered by the Godbers in a family bubble at the Scarborough theatre last autumn.

Rehearsed at home, John Godber’s play played to socially distanced sell-out audiences at the end of October 2020, just before the start of the second pandemic lockdown. From October 7 to 9, it will be performed before a socially distanced audience once more in the Round.

Writer-director Godber will reprise his role as Barney alongside his wife, fellow writer Jane Thornton, and daughter, Martha Godber. Daughter Elizabeth completes the family line-up as company stage manager; Graham Kirk provides the design and lighting.

In Godber’s moving account of a struggling Yorkshire coast B&B and the people who run it, down-to-earth proprietors Barney, Cath and Tina share stories of awkward clients, snooty relatives and eggs over easy.

Jane Thornton and Martha Godber in a scene from last October’s premiere of John Godber’s Sunny Side Up!. Picture: Elizabeth Godber

“If you’re thinking of holidaying at home this year, why not book into the Sunny Side Boarding House soon,” invites Godber, whose seaside feel-good rollercoaster digs into the essence of “staycations”.

Godber’s play is told in his signature style, blending authenticity and pathos as he addresses the problems of levelling up, leaving home and never forgetting where you come from.

This John Godber Company and Theatre Royal, Wakefield production can be seen at the SJT on October 7 at 1.30pm and 7.30pm, October 8, 7.30pm, and October 9, 2.30pm and 7.30pm.

Tickets, priced from £10, are available on 01723 370541 and at sjt.uk.com.

Barney trouble: John Godber in the role of struggling B&B proprietor Barney in Sunny Side Up!. Picture: Martha Godber