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

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