REVIEW: Living On Fresh Air, “A breath-taking comedy” by John Godber ****

On their knees: Jane Thornton’s Caroline and John Godber’s Dave in Living On Fresh Air

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.

More Things To Do in York & beyond when time travel and hot dancing counters the chill. Hutch’s List No. 11, from The Press

The future, here they come: Amy Revelle, Dave Hearn, centre, and Michael Dylan in Original Theatre’s The Time Machine. Picture: Manuel Harlan

THE week ahead is so crammed with clashing cultural highlights, Charles Hutchinson wishes you could climb aboard a time machine.

Find time for: Original Theatre in The Time Machine, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees  

DAVE Hearn, a fixture in Mischief Theatre’s calamitous comedies for a decade, takes time out to go time travelling in John Nicholson and Steven Canny’s re-visit of H G Wells’s epic sci-fi story for Original Theatre.

“It’s a play about three actors who run a theatre company and are trying to put on a production of The Time Machine, with fairly limited success,” says Hearn. “But then a big event happens that causes the play to spiral out of control and my character [Dave] discovers actual time travel.” Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Curtains At Village Gallery, by Suzanne McQuade, marks the final exhibition at Simon and Helen Main’s art space in Colliergate, York

Farewell of the week: The Curtain Descends, Village Gallery, Colliergate, York, until April 15

AS the title indicates, The Curtain Descends will be the last exhibition at Village Gallery after 40 exhibitions showcasing 100-plus Yorkshire artists in five and a half years. “The end of the shop lease and old age creeping up has sadly forced the decision,” says gallery co-owner Simon Main.

Ten artists have returned for the farewell with work reduced specially to sale prices. On show are watercolours by Lynda Heaton, Jean Luce and Suzanne McQuade; oils and acrylics by Paul Blackwell, Julie Lightburn, Malcolm Ludvigsen, Anne Thornhill and Hilary Thorpe; pastels by Allen Humphries and lino and woodcut prints by Michael Atkin. Opening hours are 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday.

Singer PP Arnold: From The First Cut Is The Deepest to Soul Survivor, her autobiography is under discussion at York Literature Festival

Festival of the week: York Literature Festival, various venues, today until March 27

HIGHLIGHTS aplenty permeate this annual festival, featuring 27 events, bolstered by new sponsorship from York St John University. Among the authors will be broadcasters David Dimbleby and Steve Richards; political journalist and think tank director Sebastian Payne (on The Fall of Boris Johnson); The League Of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson; Juno Dawson, thriller writer Saima Mir and York poet Hannah Davies.

On Music Memoir Day at The Crescent, on March 18, at 1.30pm American singer PP Arnold delves into her autobiography, Soul Survivor, at 1.30pm. At 4pm, writer/broadcaster Lucy O’Brien discusses her new book, Lead Sister: The Story Of Karen Carpenter, and the challenges of writing a biography. Go to yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk for the full programme.

Too hot to handle: Strictly’s Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer in Firedance at the Grand Opera House, York

Hot moves amid the weekend chill: Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer in Firedance, Grand Opera House, York, Sunday, 5pm

STRICTLY Come Dancing stars Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer reignite their chemistry in Firedance, a show full of supercharged choreography, sizzling dancers and mesmerising fire specialists.

Inspired by movie blockbusters Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Carmen and West Side Story, Marquez and Hauer turn up the heat as they dance to Latin, rock and pop songs by Camilla Cabello, Jason Derulo, Gregory Porter, Gipsy Kings and Jennifer Lopez. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.

Suede: First appearance at York Barbican in a quarter of a century

Gig of the week: Suede, York Barbican, Wednesday, 7.45pm

ELEGANT London rock band Suede play York Barbican for the first time in more than 25 years on the closing night of their 2023 tour. Pretty much sold out, alas, but do check yorkbarbican.co.uk for late availability.

Last appearing there on April 23 1997, Brett Anderson and co return with a set list of Suede classics and selections from last September’s Autofiction, their ninth studio album and first since 2018. “Our punk record,” as Anderson called it. “No whistles and bells. The band exposed in all their primal mess.”

Sloane danger: Ben Weir’s psychopathic Sloane, left, playing siblings Kath (Victoria Delaney) and Ed (Chris Pomfrett) off each other in rehearsal for York Actors Collective’s Entertaining Mr Sloane

Debut of the week: York Actors Collective in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee

DIRECTOR Angie Millard launches her new company, York Actors Collective, with Joe Orton’s controversial, ribald comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane, the one that shook up English farce with its savage humour in 1964.

Living with her father, Dada Kemp (Mick Liversidge), Kath (Victoria Delaney) brings home a lodger: the amoral and psychopathic Sloane (Ben Weir). When her brother Ed (Chris Monfrett) arrives, the siblings become involved in a sexual struggle for Sloane, who plays one off against the other as their father is caught in the crossfire. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Classrooom comedy: Sara Howlett, left, Laura Castle and Sophie Bullivant in rehearsal for Rowntree Players’ production of John Godber’s Teechers Leavers ’22

Education, education, education play of the week: Rowntree Players in Teechers, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Thursday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee

FAMILIAR to York’s streets at night as ghost-walk guide and spookologist Dr Dorian Deathly, actor Jamie McKellar is directing a play for the first time since 2008, at the helm of Rowntree Players’ production of former teacher John Godber’s state-of-the nation, state-of state-education comedy Teechers.

Updated for Hull Truck’s 50th anniversary celebrations as Teechers Leavers ’22, Godber’s class warfare play within a play features a multi role-playing, all-female cast of Laura Castle, Sophie Bullivant and Sarah Howlett as Year 11 school leavers Salty, Hobby and Gail put on a valedictory performance, inspired by their new drama teacher. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

David Ford: Songs and stories at The Crescent

The robots are coming: David Ford, Songs 2023, The Crescent, York, Thursday, 7.30pm

EASTBOURNE singer-songwriter David Ford might play solo stomps with loop machines and effects pedals or backed by a swish jazz trio or with a string quartet attached. Not this time.

For 2023, Ford has taken the rare decision to keep it simple, leave most of the crazy machines at home, play some of his favourite songs and share stories about where they came from. Oh, and he’ll be bringing his new DIY toy, a drum robot. Beat that. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Tuesday’s seated Crescent gig by The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, promoting his new album The Candle And The Flame, has sold out by the way.

Because he cared: Comedian Bilal Fafar reflects on working in a care home for the very wealthy in Care at Theatre@41, Monkgate

Caring comedian of the week: Burning Duck Comedy Club presents Bilal Zafar in Care, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, March 19, 8pm

WANSTEAD comedian Bilal Zafar, 31, is on his travels with a new show about how he spent a year working in a care home for very wealthy people while being on the minimum wage.

Fresh out of university with a media degree, Bilal was dropped into the real world, where he was given far too much responsibility for a 21-year-old lad who had just spent three years watching films. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk; age limit,18 and over.

In Focus: Anders Lustgarten’sThe City And The Town, at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 15 to 17

Gareth Watkins as Magnus in Anders Lustgarten’s The City And The Town. Picture: Karl Andre

LONDON playwright and political activist Anders Lustgarten’s new play, The City And The Town, heads to the Yorkshire coast next week. 

This funny, eclectic drama brings a fresh perspective to the political divides and problems facing Great Britain and Europe today.

By way of contrast to those schisms, the tour involves a hands-across-the-water partnership: a co-production by Riksteatern, the national touring theatre of Sweden, and Matthew Linley Creative Projects in association with Hull Truck Theatre.

Lustgarten’s play tells the story of brothers Ben and Magnus. Ben, a successful London lawyer, returns home for his father’s funeral after 13 years away, only to be confronted not only by family and old friends, but also by uncomfortable truths about the past, present and future of the provincial community and family he grew up in and left behind for the metroplis.

Lustgarten, by the way, is the son of progressive American academics and read Chinese Studies at Oxford: in other words, he is an internationalist (and an Arsenal supporter to boot).

Directed by Riksteatern artistic director Dritero Kasapi, The City And The Town features Gareth Watkins as Magnus, Amelia Donkor as Lyndsay and Sam Collings as Ben, with set design by Hannah Sibai and lighting design by Matt Haskins.

Amelia Donkor’s Lyndsay in The City And The Town. Picture: Karl Andre

Kasapi is at the helm of his first UK production since Nina – A Story About Me And Nina Simone. “Even from the very first draft Anders sent us, I knew that this was a play I wanted to direct,” he says. “In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s the play I’ve wanted to direct for a very long time.

“By exploring the rise of the right, Anders is looking at something that is happening all over Europe. But this is not just a political play, it’s also a humane one. It explores the question of if and how we belong to society, what can happen when we lose that connection and how we perceive our common history as a society.”

Kasapi was educated as a stage director at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Skopje, Macedonia, but since the early years of his professional life he has been engaged as a cultural organiser.

From 2015 to 2018, he was the deputy artistic director at Kulturhuset Stadstetern in Stockholm. He took up his present post in November 2018. 

The City And The Town follows such Lustgarten plays as Lampedusa (Hightide/Soho Theatre), The Seven Acts Of Mercy (Royal Shakespeare Company), The Secret Theatre(Shakespeare’s Globe) and The Damned United (Red Ladder/West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2016, turning Brian Clough’s 44 days as Leeds United manager in 1974 into a Greek tragedy).

The City And The Town began its UK tour at Hull Truck on February 10 and 11 and has since played Northern Stage, Newcastle, Wilton’s Music Hall, London, Mercury Theatre, Colchester, and Norwich Playhouse before its Scarborough finale. It will then transfer to Sweden for an autumn tour.

The City And The Town, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 15 to 17, 7.45pm plus 1.45pm Thursday matinee. Box office: 01723 370541 or www.sjt.uk.com

The tour poster for The City And The Town

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.