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.