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.
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).
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