Written by John Godber
Review by David Bithell - A View To A Kiln
With Happy Jack, you establish John Godber's words are spoken with pride of his roots and especially those of his own father. This was a story written by Godber himself at just the age of his early 20’s. For someone so young which he wrote at the time, two years before the miner’s strike of 1984, it shows a huge amount of maturity but also he admits to being a bit of rebel in the early period of his playwriting career, wanting to challenge the usual conformity of theatre.
For Happy Jack, the inspiration behind the story was his own parents but in a biographical format. What I loved the most about the play was the stage directions, which are spoken and the two characters, Jack and Elizabeth (Liz) explain in the opening narrative that this is a play set in a Yorkshire pit village where coal is like gold and words certainly aren’t wasted.
What you get from the play is a realistic, heart-warming and honest insight into lives of those amongst the coal filled villages that gave birth to the coal mining industry, one that I can resonate as my own grandfather was part of the Silverdale Colliery in Newcastle under Lyme, which is around 2 miles away from The New Vic Theatre itself. I could relate to everything as my grandfather sat me down and mentioned about the comradery and the lives of living underground for hours on end at a time.
We meet Jack and Liz as an old couple reminiscing about Mario Lanza, sitting by the fire in their miner’s cottage. John Godber as with all his plays lends a beautiful dead-pan quality to Jack, the stereotypical grumpy old man.
Liz is the typical northern wife, who white washes the steps on a weekly basis, just like my own grandmother did all those years ago and stresses if the washing and cleaning duties aren’t done properly on the right day of the week. She ends so many of her sentences with a long-suffering look and the words ‘You have to laugh, Jack’, in the hope it will help persuade him to do so. Happy Jack, she calls him because he is such a miserable character.
We watch the couple get younger, experiencing their memorable life events as if they are happening right now. Old age, retirement, working down the pit, going on holiday and playing Mr & Mrs after a slug of alcohol; then marriage, childbirth and courtship all make the idea of real life in reverse into such a refreshingly rejuvenating notion.
Jane Thornton (who is in fact John Godber's real life wife) finds a lovely feisty simplicity in Liz, she plays the part superbly and you can see the onstage chemistry with the couple, just like we did during Sunny Side Up, a play that graced us with its presence only last year. With Liz’s character, Jane’s not afraid to show her frustrations, but even their yelling sessions display an almost entirely unspoken bond between the two, which is both unbreakable and deeply heart-warming. Thornton also plays a bar worker in a pub and a box-office lady, as well as making quite a splash as her own grandson, which was a really charming scene where Grandad is giving him a bath.
It is amazing to think that Happy Jack is more than thirty years old; but there’s a charming timeless feel about it and one you can imagine being in those ex mining communities up and down the country.
The play is full of typically John Godber down to earth humour, you will certainly relate to some if not all of the content within the play and for the 90mins, you will come away knowing you have witnessed such a wonderfully thought of play with a lot of attention to detail.
Happy Jack runs at The New Vic Theatre until Saturday 30th April.
For tickets please visit www.newvictheatre.org.uk or by calling the box office on 01782 717962