Theatre: A weekend break from film's limitations

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Weekend Breaks, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until 14 February

In his programme note for his new play, Weekend Breaks, John Godber writes of the enthusiasm he felt for returning to the theatre's "simple black box" immediately after completing the film version of his hit Up'n'Under. In the case of Weekend Breaks the box is barely a metaphor, for Godber relies entirely on a stage empty but for three chairs, varied downlighting to punctuate the blackness, a little music, and of course his three actors. Aside from anything else, the play demonstrates Godber's craft as a writer and director so able to animate these essentials, moving us by little more than words and body language through space and time to tell his story.

Admittedly he helps himself in this by conjuring a world that is already so familiar, not least from such previous work as Happy Families. This is doughty working-class Yorkshire ("the only good thing to come out the south is the train to Doncaster") and a family of complaining stoics, prudish philanderers and taciturn debating champions. Martin, however, thinks he has broken with his parents' Procrustean regime of Sainsbury's, doctor's surgery and Costa del Sol by marrying upwards and establishing a metropolitan life for himself as a drama lecturer and screenwriter. In fact he has only got as far as Oxford Landing (brand and place-names are crucial signifiers here) and the Lake District hideaway to which he invites Len and Joan for the eponymous holiday.

The action, narrated by Martin in a parody stand-up routine, is the predictable movement in which Martin ceases to see his parents as "material" and rediscovers them as people of feeling and true decency. Godber is too skilled a practitioner to allow this familiar trajectory to land his play too squarely in the syrup. There is acid indeed in Martin's near-homicidal satire of his parents' attitudes and life-style, culminating in his policy proposal for a 60- plus exam: answer a few simple questions and demonstrate the ability to back a caravan into a driveway or it's euthanasia. It is such wickedness of observation and the roundedness of Godber's caricatures which mitigates the undeniable simplification and sentimentality of his hero's "coming home".

Yet time and again I found myself admiring Godber's manipulation of theatrical conventions and a technique which combines economy of staging with rich realisations of his three actors: Adrian Hood as Martin, Judi Jones as the mother, and Dicken Ashworth as the father. After the routine diminution actors suffer in the tedium of the screen's endless establishing shots, "production values" and bite-sized scenes, what a pleasure it must be for them to be able to expand their talent into the true reality of this empty space.

Jeffrey Wainwright

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