Bleakness and belly laughs
As April In Paris is revived, John Godber says little has changed in politics in the 20 years since it was first performed.
By Mark Brown
John Godber – the prolific dramatist whose 1992 romantic comedy April In Paris is about to be staged by Perth Theatre, in association with the Tron Theatre, Glasgow – is one of the biggest names in contemporary English theatre. Best known, perhaps, for his first original stage play, Bouncers (which premiered on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1977), Godber is known as an author of bold, working-class comedies.
Often his plays reflect upon the lives of people who are very similar to him in their proletarian, Yorkshire backgrounds, if not in their fortunes. That is certainly the case with April In Paris, which is being directed and designed by Kenny Miller.
The comedy tells the story of Al and Bet, an East Yorkshire couple whose troubled relationship is breaking under the weight of Al’s recent redundancy and associated money worries. The only bright spot on their horizon is that Bet’s constant efforts in magazine competitions have finally borne fruit, and she and Al are off on a romantic break to Paris.
For Godber this modest tale of two people seizing upon a brief moment of pleasure in the midst of hard times is, now as then, charged with politics. “On the one hand, April In Paris is a romantic comedy”, he says. “But, on the other hand, it’s about the bleak state of the nation… Because I write comedies, some people have been unable to describe them as ‘plays of our times’. Quite often the humour gets in the way. I suppose the best example is Bouncers, which is a bleak look at urban nightlife, but is just remarkably funny.”
There is, as the old saying goes, many a true word spoken – or, in Godber’s case, written – in jest. When he wrote April In Paris he was motivated by despair and anger at the state of John Major’s Britain. He doesn’t think things are any better under David Cameron.
“Fast forward 20 years, and not a lot’s changed”, he observes. “We’re in recession; we’re living through times of austerity; unemployment’s high; building’s depressed; people are borrowing from credit card companies to pay off their loans with other credit card companies. For some people, the only chink of light in the midst of all this is to win a competition for a cruise or two nights at a spa hotel.”
There is, Godber says, “a massive disconnect” between the picture the UK government paints of contemporary Britain and the reality on the streets. “Cameron can drop in on as many food banks as he likes, you have to come from the people to understand what they’re about, and what their desires and hopes are…. When [the coalition] are not in office, they’ll disappear to their multi-million pound businesses.”
The playwright certainly sees himself as coming from the people. It’s a belief which charges his philosophy of theatre: “My strong belief is that if plays don’t mean anything to people on the street, what’s the point of doing them?”
As a statement of preference for the clear meanings of “popular theatre” over the more ambiguous plays of the avant-garde or nominally “high-brow” drama, Godber’s comment seems pretty unequivocal. It’s an outlook which might place him alongside Alan Ayckbourn, American comic dramatist Neil Simon, or, at a stretch, fellow Yorkshireman Alan Bennett.
Ask Godber about his theatrical inspirations and antecedents, however, and you get a very different picture indeed. “I’m an absolutely huge fan of Tadeusz Kantor”, he says of the late, great Polish theatre master. Nor does the English playwright’s fascination with European modernism end there. The titanic German dramatist Bertolt Brecht influenced him “hugely”, he says. He also greatly admires the work of Brecht’s compatriots Franz Xaver Kroetz (whose superb play Tom Fool played at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in 2006) and 19th-century writer Georg Büchner.
In fact, more surprisingly still, Godber believes that April In Paris owes a debt to Büchner’s magnum opus, Woyzeck. “There’s something very elliptical in the writing of Woyzeck that I use in April In Paris”, he says. “You might struggle to make the link, because one of them is quite funny, and the other is desperately bleak. But, certainly, those influences are there in my work, much more than traditional English writers.”
At one level, conducting an interview with John Godber is pretty much as one might expect. He is a warm, even avuncular conversationalist, very much, one imagines, like the poet Ian McMillan (another Yorkshireman). Nor is it entirely surprising to discover that he is contemptuous of the Tory Party. However, what I didn’t expect, I must confess, was to be discussing Brecht and Büchner with the author of Bouncers.
If there appears to be a contradiction between the plays that Godber likes to see and the plays that he writes, it’s a contradiction which he has always resolved in favour of heartfelt, popular comedy. “For all the politics of April In Paris”, he comments, “and for all its contemporary resonances, it’s two people struggling to keep a relationship together under extreme conditions. They do that with great humour and great humility. Neither of them has ever been to Paris, and it reignites their romance in a cack-handed sort of way. I find that strangely touching. ”
April In Paris is at Perth Theatre, March 15-30, and Tron Theatre, Glasgow, April 3-13
This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 10, 2013
© Mark Brown