Sunny Side Up

John Godber

John Godber Company/Theatre Royal Wakefield

Oldham Coliseum

October 19-23, 2021; 1hr 45min

John Godber and Jane Thornton in Sunny Side Up. All pics: Martha and Elizabeth Godber
John Godber and Jane Thornton in Sunny Side Up. All pics: Martha and Elizabeth Godber

John Godber’s work never seems to change: when you see his name on something you pretty much know what you are in for and that you will enjoy it, for the most part, but perhaps later wonder why you did.

It’s been that way since his first major hit, Bouncers, to his most recent, over 60 plays later.

His work is man-of-the-people direct: the points he makes are not subtle, his point of view is not to be found under layers of metaphor and plot. So often his work is a simple plot with a few jokes and a lively approach – apparently an easy watch. Later you forget the relatively thin stagecraft and think instead about the politics beneath.

Since forming the John Godber Company (and during Covid) his work has also become a decidedly family affair: in this cute three-handed bubble he is joined by his wife Jane Thornton and daughter Martha Godber (with their other daughter, Elizabeth, as stage manger), so the family dialogue has a greater accuracy than usual.

After a big hit in 2018 with Scary Bikers – one reviewer claimed it was the best description around of the two sides of the Brexit debate – his latest covers another modern-day bugbear: the haves and have-nots. Can you, should you, escape your roots if you can, or do we have a duty to stick around and make the best of them they can be?

The plot, such as it is, seems simple: decaying, investment-lacking Sunnyside on the Yorkshire coast should, thanks to Covid, be closer to its final destination as the UK’s worst seaside town than ever. But post-Covid, the bed and breakfast hotels are booming, one among them that of Barney (Godber) and Tina (Thornton) and their daughter Kath (Martha Godber).

After a cancellation they – well, she – invites her brother Graham and his wife Sue to stay for a couple of days, and that’s our play. Graham and Sue (the Godbers in different coats) are well-to-do: she’s a retired opera singer and MBE (for good works), while he is a retired academic, who left Sunnyside and his family pretty much as soon as he was able. Now they have a Porsche and a house big enough to have its own orchard.

While Sue and Tina try to make the best of their family ties, bluff, man-mountain Barney is just as keen to avoid his brother-in-law and Kath has no particular wish to have relative wealth shoved in her face. In a series of sketch-like, funny dialogues we actually see that the two couples are actually not that far apart: Graham still loves pond-dipping on the beach like he did as a boy, and eating fish and chips; while Sue isn’t averse to a bit of Karaoke with the girls. It’s just no longer their life.

The catalyst for Godber’s point is a working-class regular at the B&B, Kelly – Martha Godber again – whose initially good-natured conversation with Graham turns far less friendly as she accuses him of leaving his friends and family to fail, while he visits when it suits him and gets freebies and a good life.

It’s a slightly spurious point: you can’t really expect individuals with energy and spirit to stay behind and do very little personally at a local level when local investment and opportunity are the job of local authorities, entrepreneurs and government. But with its sharp tone and easy-going comedy, Godber’s point of view at least tries to be persuasive.


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