Monday, 30 June 2014

Derby Theatre - review of John Godber's April in Paris.

You need great skill to hold the attention of a theatre audience for two hours and Shobna Gulati and Joe McGann had the near capacity Derby Theatre audience in the palm of their hands every second of the way with their subtle acting and totally believable togetherness as estranged husband and wife, Bet and Al, in John Godber's new production of his work, April in Paris.

The first half is situated on the minimal decking outside their house. Clouds scud across the stage and the neighbour's dog barks every time Al (Joe McGann) ventures off down to the garden shed. Bet (Shobna Gulati) is not 'living the dream' but longs to dream of something better which may come through the regular competitions she enters. The latest competition prize is a romantic trip to Paris but the romance in Al and Bet's relationship appears to be as Ooh La La as a wet Sunday in Whitby. At one point Bet reads from her magazine about lacklustre men. The magazine article claims that men are more interested in a having a pint of beer than in making love to their wives. With great comic timing from McGann his character Al thinks for a second and asks "What sort of beer?"

Godber's play has many a funny line and husband and wife situations that the audience lapped up and also levels of poignancy where the frustrations of a long marriage partnership come bubbling up to the surface. Both Gulati and McGann work very well together and Godber's writing is deliberately sparse and sometimes in saying little it says a lot. It is also true that actions can speak louder than words and this was particularly telling in the scene on the cross channel ferry. The body language of the two principals as the ferry hits choppy waters was spot on with legs desperate to anchor themselves to anything seemingly solid and the top body half reaching out for safety. Gulati's disco dancing has to be a veritable highlight of the show. The joy on her face as she flings herself around after a few too many large 'on holiday' glasses of white wine is just perfect! A very lovable Brit Abroad.

In the second half Paris is revealed in all its glory but it wouldn't be such a delightful surprise if I described how it is done. Godber visited Paris himself with his daughter Elizabeth to see if he had 'got' Paris and her charms still after twenty-two years and says that it was fascinating to see tourists still fingering their maps and travel books. They were awestruck at the beauty of this truly astonishing and charming city and they still found hapless tourists tripping up in their mangled attempts to speak the language. One thing he did say had changed and that was that many of the tourists were from the east, Eastern European and farther afield. The Derby audience still laughed at the old joke about the Brits not understanding Steak Tartar and were with McGann's Al as he mimed eating every mouthful. Initially Al finds the new food repugnant but eventually he finds himself enjoying something he had perceived to be repellent and wanting more.

Both characters rekindle their love for each other through their experiences in Paris and like the city herself the play is full of charm and delightful surprises. The two understudies have a chance to shine as two mime artists direct from the hit film Paris Je T'Aime.

Playing at Derby Theatre until Saturday 12th July and then tours thirteen other UK venues until mid October 2013.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

more than half of actors are under the poverty line.

I found this to be a very interesting article in The Telegraph and felt it important enough to share.

Do take five minutes to read it and share.


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Derby Theatre. Interview with John Godber and cast

Interview with John Godber, Shobna Gulati and Joe McGann.
Copyright Phil Lowe

I caught up with playwright John Godber and actors Joe McGann and Shobna Gulati during one of the early rehearsals for a new touring production of Godber's bitter-sweet romantic comedy April In Paris that originally premièred on April 23rd 1992 at the Spring Street Theatre in Hull by the Hull Truck Theatre Company as part of the Hull 1992 Festival. The original featured John Godber himself as Al and the then Jane Clifford as his stage wife Bet. The play has had many a professional showing since and when it was performed in the West End with Gary Olsen and Maria Friedman in the two roles it was nominated for a Laurence Olivier award as Best Comedy of The Year. 2010 saw a revival of John Godber and Jane Godber (neé Clifford) in the play and now Godber is directing a touring production with Joe McGann and Shobna Gulati as unemployed builder Al and his competition mad and long suffering wife Bet.

John Godber told me that in the original production he wrote the script without reference to any children as in real life he had no children back then but the latest script refers to grown up children that have fled the nest and this element gives the story an extra human depth that he felt it lacked before.

Godber is a well known theatrical name both for amateur and professional societies and I was keen, on behalf of Sardines, to find out his view on amateur societies performing his plays. He said “Well you're delighted that anybody wants to do your plays. I know that my plays get done a lot in amateur circles which is great. There is obviously a connection otherwise people wouldn't venture to do them. I guess sometimes they choose the most difficult plays to do and sometimes they'll choose Bouncers for example. This is a very very difficult play to do. I've seen it performed by amateurs both good, bad and indifferent to be quite honest.”

He continued “I know that there is a thriving amateur scene and years ago I was involved in a project with the Little Theatre Guild. BT got involved too and they commissioned a play called Happy Families and then that play was performed at forty-eight theatres on the same night. It was in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest opening of any play anywhere. It variously went from theatres in the north who kind of understood the work to theatres in Tel Aviv who sent us a video and they didn't quite understand what 'failing your 11 plus' meant! And you know, poetry is that which is lost in translation. You know, we need amateur theatre to survive. We need all theatre to survive realistically because it breeds participants and audiences and interest and so long may it thrive.”

I broached the subject of the many productions of April In Paris that had been done over the years and wondered if the work was suited to an amateur company putting on a production of what is quite a challenging piece for two actors. What I meant was, given the sparse nature of the text and extremely subtle hues of interpretation by which the show might fail or succeed dependent on the actor's skills, was this truly possible in the amateur field. John replied “This isn't the easiest of plays for amateurs to do. It's heritage is in France. The language is connected with economic exchanges and is extremely spare and I wrote it very very quickly. It was part and parcel of what we were doing at Hull at the time. Frankly we needed a play that was cost effective. I did it for nothing and Jane did it because she lived locally so there was no overnights or travel expenses so it only cost us one salary. I was going through a thing then, at that time, experimenting with how little I could say on the page. This is Brecht's influence I think. There is very little to get hold of on the page. This version however, there is a little bit more, not a lot more because going back and looking at the play I thought that I had under-written the play a little bit too much. I also thought that our attitudes to Europe have hardened over the last twenty-two years both pro and anti. I think that if a play's gonna work then it has to stand up within the social milieu that is relevant at the time otherwise it becomes a museum piece. I didn't want this to be a one of those.”

image by Robert Day

Always curious to know whether a writer has seen any amateur productions of his plays I ventured to ask John if he had personally seen any amateur productions of April In Paris and whether they were as good as any in the professional sector. His answer was short and sweet. “No to both questions! No I've never seen one and I couldn't imagine frankly, with the greatest humility I can muster, that they'd be any better than this production!” This gem was received with a wave of gentle laughter from all the professional team involved.

I explained that I had done a fair amount of research into the creation and life of April In Paris by John Godber and one thing that had stood out for me was there were references to the singer Madonna in my stage script of the 1992 production and I wondered if she had been cut from the new version. John was amused by this and said that she was still alive and about fifty-six so the connection in the script was actually still very relevant because it refers to her being the same age as Al. References that had been changed from the 1992 script were because of the underlying theme of Britain's connection with Europe and that Europe as a socio -political entity was still prevalent in our collective minds at the moment. Godber said that the best way he could describe it was that what happens in the play is we realise we are an island nation but of course 'no man is an island'. Within that dialectic there's the problem for us as a country within Europe. He continued with “I understand that even today the Scots will say that they are happy to be separate but they want to keep the pound.”

I thanked John for his comments and feelings and moved over to talk to actors Joe McGann and Shobna Gulati sitting close by in the heated rehearsal room on this chilly day in the former School of Art on Green Lane in Derby.

I was curious about their experiences of the rehearsal processes given that they were now two weeks into the rehearsals. Joe told me that it was a happy cast and crew and much discussion had gone into portraying the characters truthfully and in discovering their back stories in earlier rehearsals. He added that he loved the rehearsal process and as an actor it is a privilege to be able to come to work and not just on the things they do like working on a great text but, the chances to sit and chat about it and taking things apart and reconnect them. Joe continued “To try and shoehorn a play into your head and at the same time find your journey through it - it's so much further away than digging ditches for a living. It is a true privilege to do this kind of thing and at the moment, with it being a two hander I wouldn't say that I've got it all in yet but it IS going in and it is a good part of the process. I think it improves you over time and I think it improves you as a person in the rehearsal process if you listen and if you are diligent about the work. I think then that you understand a lot more about the play, about life and about yourself by going through and yes, I'm enjoying it very much.”

copyright Phil Lowe
I asked Joe (whilst being conscious that I hadn't spoken yet to Shobna within the interview) whether he felt that any of his character's personality reflected any of his own traits. He was very forthcoming in his response and emphatically replied “Yeah, I would say that any frustration that I felt as a younger man, not so much now because of the job I do, I remember, not so much in Liverpool because I felt involved in culture there and the city as a whole with the Beatles and such but my memories are that of a seventeen year old. I moved down from Liverpool to London and, especially amongst other men of my age, it seemed a cultural desert and they just weren't interested in the same things that I was and I remember thinking then 'you need to get out more, you need and do something!' I used to work in Soho and as pretentious as it sounds, it's the truth, I used to go and rest my head by going and gazing at pictures, not only in the National Portrait Gallery but I used to look at the water lilies and I used to find that that used to set me at the centre of the graph. I'd go in there and I'd go in the National Portrait Gallery and bearing in mind that Punk was going on all around I 'd settle myself by getting myself theatre tickets as well as spending time in the art galleries. This is how my character Al recognises his soul too, through art and beauty. There is that element for a thirsts for knowledge and thirst to improve.”

Shobna said that Al doesn't know in the beginnings of the play's story that he has that thirst but he finds it as the story progresses. Joe relied that Al has his eyes opened and his soul opened in Paris and that is what he sees as saving him and potentially saving his marriage.

Being slightly devil's advocate I then asked Shobna how close she would say that within the body of the theatrical story that Al and Bet's marriage is 'on the rocks and heading for disaster' within this childless married couple.

She was keen to point out that here had been a change in the dramatic text and now Al and Bet have children albeit grown up children who have left home. Shobna said that she would argue that the relationship is not 'on the rocks' and it is how it is every day. She explained further that it is a very loving relationship and it is just that they have just got used to each other and used to each other's ways and connections through argument. She emphasised that if it is done right you will see that as an audience, and contrary to any misunderstanding socially, their dialogue verbal and implied is not in a 'grounds for divorce situation' but conveys that the couple understand each other implicitly. They communicate and they may growl at each other, but that's the nature of them being married for over thirty years.

I interjected that it is a 'loving growl; and Joe added that the 'gloves are off'. Or as Shobna amusingly joked “We are happy to fart in each other's company!” This caused much ribald amusement and merry laughter and was declared the potential headline of this article! The terms 'a pump' and/or ' a pardon' were laughed over in this most relaxed of interviews. I continued to chat for another fifteen minutes with the writer and cast and thoroughly enjoyed the honour of watching the first hilarious act in rehearsal.

A longer version of this interview about the production will be available in the August edition of Sardines magazine.

The play starts its countrywide tour in Derby at Derby Theatre Friday 27th June to Saturday 12th July 2014. For bookings ring 01332 593939 or go to

Monday, 16 June 2014

Our Friends The Enemy - On tour - Catch it while you can!

There are various plays that make some connection with the Christmas truce of 1914 – 'Oh What a Lovely War' being one, Robin Kingsland's play 'All Quiet On The Western Front' similarly and now a one man show called 'Our Friends The Enemy' written and performed by Alex Gwyther. Alex Gwyther is a writer and performer and has performed across the country at venues and festivals and events such as Oxford University, The Royal Festival Hall, Latitude Festival and The Mayor of London's Week of Peace in Trafalgar Square. Having been fascinated by the story of the Christmas truce, Alex Gwyther initially wrote the piece as a spoken word poem, which he has performed in front of a thousand strong audience at the Mayor of London’s Week of Peace. He has also been invited to perform at a Remembrance Service in aid of Help for Heroes and St. Dunstan’s Charity on three separate occasions. His style has been described as unique and of a 'tumbling urbane' nature and his works are published by Nasty Little Press and Burning Eye Books.

Gwyther's one man play 'Our Friends The Enemy' looks at the period 10th December 1914 to January 5th 1915 from the viewpoint of a young English private in his own trench at Armentières and the trenches of the Germans (mainly the 134th Saxons) opposite. He talks to the audience in a mix of friendly chat and poetic description interspersed, when you least expect it, with a verbal blast of sudden devastation that hits the heart as accurately as a sniper's bullet.

This is an unselfish piece as the narrative roams like a ghost among the trenches and sits alongside men from both sides and tells of their confusion, their freezing feet, the comfort of a cigarette or a cuppa made in a billy can on a fire. A slice of bacon becomes a lifeline to normality and a reminder of peace times back home Britain or in Germany. The enemy turn out to be 'a nice bunch of chaps from across the way'. The piece is told with a knowledgeable and authentic voice.

A grenade is lobbed into the English trenches and the entrenched soldiers freeze with fear as they play cards. The next fraction of a second could be their last. Only the grenade turns out to a small stone with crumbled paper tied around it. On the paper, in writing written on an uneven surface it says “Merry Christmas Englishmen!” It is from the Germans.

An uneven truce happens with enemies becoming friendly and swopping greetings and addresses, offering simple gifts instead of shells and gunfire. Christmas trees lit up with candles top the German trenches and festive songs and hymns are sung by both sides in this unexpected and historic lull in The Great War. At one point a football match between the two sides ensues and a madcap pursuit of a large hare by English and German soldiers that takes us thrillingly across no-man's land and down into the trenches is relayed by the soldier narrator. Photographs are taken of the mixed grey and khaki groups and Gywther's character James Boyce brings them all believably and poignantly to life. Fraternisation with the enemy could have serious and even deadly personal consequences which private James Boyce comes to realise in this short but excellently written play.

The play is directed by Tom O'Brien and produced by David Adkin in association with Theatre Bench and Robin Raynor. The musical composition is done by Darren Clark and the design created by James Hirst. Theatre Bench was launched in October 2012 to support the development of new works in theatre and dance. 'Our Friends The Enemy' tours until 28th November 2014. Tour details can be found HERE.
Production photography by Pamela Raith, Lighting by Derek Anderson and Design by Jay Hirst.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A Christmas Carol - a play by author Phil Lowe

This play was first produced in December 2008 at the Lace Market Theatre and directed by Martin Berry. It is a traditional version of Dicken's classic tale and is perfect for amateur productions, youth theatre groups or schools due to the large cast and possibilities of doubling characters and showing off the versatility of the cast.

The original production won a place in 'top ten plays of 2008' through the Nottingham Evening Post's reviewers choice. The script is now available to download as an eBook in iBooks for ipad format for £3.99 plus vat.

For further details about the play read my earlier Christmas Carol blog post (actually one of my most popular blog posts with over 1800 hits to date) and for information regarding royalties and rights please email me at titling the email Christmas Carol enquiry.

Phil Lowe.

Sunday, 1 June 2014