Happy Jack – A Review

Posted on October 31, 2023, in: Uncategorized

By Mick Brian – Devizine

Images by Chris Watkins Media

Take a play written in 1982, about two people born in 1914, from West Yorkshire. Written by a professional playwright with huge global stage hits to his name……..

Perform it in a theatre in 2023, with two actors born in the early 1960s, in Wiltshire. Directed by a retired head teacher with much local based success in community theatre.

What do you get?

Let us take a step back from that question for now…

John Godber, of “Bouncers” (1977) fame was a schoolteacher and then professional writer, who crafted this biographical play about his own grandparents. It was his first ever play, written when he was 25 years old, as it happens, though it didn’t see the light of day publicly for some while. It is written in reverse chronology. That is, the play opens with the two protagonists, Jack and Liz, in their later years and works its way backwards through their lives…  from death, to married life and its tribulations and joys, to being grandparents, and parents, marriage, honeymoon, courtship and that first date.

Jack is a cantankerous, bullish miner. Liz is a far from kowtowed Yorkshire lass who gives as good as she gets, and in snippets we glean from the story holds all the aces in the relationship in reality.

Jack is played by Ian Diddams, Liz by Wendy Dopheide. Both are the same age in real life, as we meet them as their characters at the start of the play. Whilst by the end of the play they are aged seventeen, so wonderful are their portrayals that it easy to see via their mannerisms and control of voice that they pass for such youthful individuals. Ian is a no stranger to the Wharf Theatre, whilst this is Wendy’s first appearance there. The play is directed by Lyn Taylor, who has both directed and performed across Wiltshire.  Technical is headed up by Jon Lewthwaite, more than ably assisted by a multitude of talented people sliding sliders, making noises, and pressing buttons! There are also two other characters in this play, unlisted…  Wendy and Ian as themselves, as narrators. Godber’s writing and their acting flips effortlessly between southern English 21st century actors, and an early to mid-20th century Yorkshire couple. Then there are the side characters, played by the same two actors. Here Wendy gets kudos for also playing not only herself and Liz, but also a grandson, a ticket seller, a barman and a neighbour. Ian merely has to double up once – he gets the easy ride clearly. Oh – and I nearly forgot…  take your time and think carefully…  you may even spot the un-named John Godber in the play…

So – back to that question…  What do you get?  You get something quite excellent.

Now – lets be fair …  great shows start with a great playwright, so take a bow John Godber. It is a play that is fifty-five pages long of quite small font. Both characters have over four hundred and seventy lines of dialogue each. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play. In its entirety it is over FOUR HOURS LONG to perform. Its titular character has three hundred and fifty-eight lines. Horatio has the next largest number of lines …  at a hundred and nine.

Let that sink in a moment.

So – how does it stack up? It’s a simple, even stark, set that sets the tone nonetheless perfectly.  A hatstand, a bookshelf, a coal scuttle and a gramophone represent Jack and Liz’s home. Two chairs centre stage complete the set. But these are no ordinary chairs. They not only represent easy chairs and dining chairs but also a bath, a birthing table, a washstand, railings, and a bench. Less is more they say and here director Lyn’s vision really comes to the fore. Allied to this is a wonderfully choreographed lighting set – want a fireplace with flickering flames? No problem.  A northern nightclub with glittering lights?  A doddle. How about a cinema?  Easy-peasy.  Not to forget some wonderfully evocative sound effects…  seaside, cinema again, and of course and obviously (!) the Tower Ballroom at Blackpool.

Costumes are simple but effective with minimal fuss. Working class garb with outer garments garnered from the aforementioned hatstand.

And then there’s the music. Mario Lanza, John Hanson, Kitty Kallen, Reginald Dixon…  amongst others. Their doleful tones – and tunes – haunt the first act in particular. And a memorable rendition of a duet by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold.

And that’s it. Just under two hours including an interval gives you an insight into a 20th century Yorkshire miner’s family. Two wonderful performances by Wendy and Ian, great directing by Lyn, and top technical input by “the crew”.

Do yourself a favour and get to see this, this week at the Wharf Theatre, Devizes.

And returning to that question at the very start of this piece once again…

What do you get?
You get community theatre at its finest.

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