THEATRE / Foreign correspondence: Robert Hanks reviews John Godber's April in Paris at the Ambassador's

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The Independent Culture
Traditionally, the Englishman abroad has tended towards one of two extremes. At one end of the scale, there's the sentimental traveller who believes that travel broadens the mind, who wants to absorb new experiences and meet new people, to escape from the insularity and frustration of life at home. At the other end, there's the xenophobe tourist, scared of being abroad and compensating by eating steak and chips, sticking firmly to the tourist routes and getting loudly and regularly drunk.

John Godber's April in Paris, now at the Ambassador's, shows how close the two extremes can be, in the persons of Al (Gary Olsen) and Bet (Maria Friedman). Throughout their one-night break in Paris - won in a competition in Bella - there's a see-sawing ambivalence, relief at having broken away from the perfect boredom of Hull alternating with an insecurity verging on paranoia about being stranded in a strange country where you don't know the rules.

Bet is the adventurous one, the one who entered the competition in the first place, and the one who gets excited by the trip: she imbues the whole enterprise with an impossible romance, so that even the lingering smell of sick aboard the North Sea ferry is greeted eagerly as a reminder that they're at sea. But left alone in a Paris cafe while Al struggles with the alien architecture of the local lavatories, she succumbs to panic, convinced that the chic Parisiennes are talking about her British Home Stores suit.

Al, an unemployed builder, is already mired in paranoia and shame, so that what he experiences is the liberation of Paris - something reflected in the set's switch from cramped monochrome, for Hull and the ferry, to a spacious, colourful Renoir backdrop for France (an echo of The Wizard of Oz). But even he has moments of hysteria, caught off guard by the sheer foreignness of the place.

One of the pleasing things about Godber's script is the way it maintains this tension throughout, teasing you by setting up cheap jokes that have no punchlines. When I say that it's not as funny as it could be, that's meant as a compliment: when our heroes innocently book an evening at a drag cabaret, Godber could opt for huge guffaws at their expense - and for a moment, their round-eyed horror seems to suggest that's exactly what we'll get. Instead, they love every minute of it ('I'll tell you this - they work bloody 'ard').

This self-control damps the laughs, but adds weight to the play's message - which is, essentially, about the cramping, negative mood of present-day Britain, and the misery we needlessly inflict on ourselves. The message is reinforced by Godber's refusal to allow easy resolutions to the various strands of plot, right up to the last minute (and even then, it's a matter of fending off an unhappy ending, rather than giving us an unequivocally happy one).

You might think, for instance, that a couple of days in the City of Lights would do wonders for Al and Bet's ailing marriage, now a patterned, repetitive round of sniping and bickering. In fact, they take their old quarrels with them; and while a holiday calms them down, their only moment of real tenderness is ruined when Al reflexively cracks a stupid gag. Back home, while Bet tries to find consolation in their trip, gamely proposing that you have to go away before you appreciate what you've got on your doorstep (another echo of The Wizard of Oz), their main emotion is a creaking desperation: they know better than before the sort of cage they're trapped in.

April in Paris is not, in the end, an evening of profound insights or dramatic highs. But it is a confident, at times very funny display of theatrical technique, by Godber and by the two actors; so that in itself, it's a minor argument against staying at home.

Ambassador's Theatre, London WC2 (071-836 7111).

(Photograph omitted)