Monday, 14 June 2021

Family drama’s ups and downs, tears and laughter ring true throughout

Family drama’s ups and downs, tears and laughter ring true throughout

Happy Jack | Progress Theatre, Reading | Monday, June 11

IN the latest offering from Progress Theatre, Happy Jack, Gareth Saunders and Melanie Sherwood take the stage as Jack and Liz, a married couple based on the grandparents of playwright John Godber.

They have built a life in a Yorkshire mining village, where Jack goes to the pit every day and Liz takes care of the house.

Saunders and Sherwood are commanding and authentic as the Yorkshire couple. The drama is constructed around passages narrating and explaining events, interspersed with scenes from the couple’s life.

The pair slip effortlessly between the two, the step into character signalled by adopting a Yorkshire accent. At times, overlapping dialogue indicates that Jack and Liz are inseparable — they finish each other’s sentences.

This meditation on marriage is ideally suited to the intimate Progress stage. The simple yet evocative set uses two chairs to represent coupledom and some clotheshorses signifying housework, but also, on a practical level, holding the changes of costume.

The production is enhanced by lighting and sound from Jon Churchill and Stuart McCubbin. The scenes of family life are punctuated by the rise and fall of the lights.

We never forget this is a mining town, since a pithead is projected on the backcloth. A sense of the mid-20th century setting is created through music and song, but song lyrics are also used to suggest the emotional field of the drama.

Helen Wernham’s direction allows for total audience focus on the characters. The dignified, good-humoured performances from Saunders and Sherwood track the passage of time for Jack and Liz, from childbirth and family holidays to the challenges of ageing and bereavement.

Death and loneliness are always looming, not least because Jack’s health has been ruined by many years’ hard labour down the mine.

Yet quiet, pervasive humour reminds the audience that Jack and Liz can conclude about their life that “it were a laugh.”

We view their bad-tempered spats with neighbours and with each other, but also hear family stories, tall tales and fond memories that remind us their marriage is built on “enough love to sink a mineshaft”.

A key achievement for Jack and Liz is to acquire the house in Saxon Terrace where they bring up their family. It is home sweet home but, because of the dominance of housework for Liz, also a prison.

There are some dark moments when the couple acknowledge disappointment and futility. They question what all the striving, endeavour and sheer drudgery has been for.

Yes, Happy Jack is a political piece, but the politics are totally embedded in a compelling and believable family story.

This lyrical, bittersweet play is born out of admiration for ordinary working people.

Liz and Jack’s recap of good times and bad, delivered with great feeling by the two actors, rings true.

The play encapsulates the ups and downs, tears and laughter of everyday family life.

Well done Progress on a delightful, absorbing and totally engaging evening of theatre.

Until Saturday (June 16).

Susan Creed

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