Why the John Godber Company is very much a family affair

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Yorkshire is synonymous with some famous family names.

Thursday, 27th August 2020, 4:56 pm Updated Thursday, 27th August 2020, 5:00 pm John and Jane Godber in Scary Bikers which transferred to the West End. (Picture: Robling photography).

Top of the tree, arguably, are the Brontes and the trailblazing trio of sisters. In the acting world there’s Bradford’s Timothy West and his son Sam (the latter is about to star in Channel 5’s eagerly anticipated new TV series All Creatures Great and Small).

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Then there’s John Godber a man who made much of his career in Hull and has set up camp in Wakefield in recent years. Bouncers, Teechers, Up ‘N’ Under; the company which bears Godber’s name – and the playwright himself – are the perfect next stop on my journey around the county’s theatre landscape.

Kings of Hull. (Picture: Amy Charles). I first met Godber 15-odd years ago and my first words to him were to remark on the size of the man – he is, to borrow the sort of phrase you might hear in one of his plays, a ‘bit of a unit’. Anyone who has seen Godber’s work – and that is a seriously sizable number – will know what you get with him.

“I think I’d say that the style of our current work is very legible, direct and instant. That’s not to say that it is not without depth, but like anyone working in the arts, we are aware that styles change as society changes and artists reshape their lives,” he says. “Currently we are responding to contemporary events as we see them affecting those who we live amongst.

Comedy plays a large part in our work, but only in as much as it is driven by the characters and their situations.” Th Godbers family, left to right, Jane, Martha , John and Elizabeth. (Picture:Henry Ingham). Godber talks like this when it comes to theatre.

Accessible though his work may be, he is a real intellectual in the craft of writing plays. “There is a sense of situation comedy in our work, but even that is informed and mixed with an extensive knowledge of theatre styles. “We have always believed that theatre should be accessible to all, and we are saddened sometimes by the cost of theatre going, it often feels far too expensive and exclusive.

Good theatre, for us, enriches the soul and stimulates the mind, and that can be true of both comedy and tragedy.” Godber, the son of a miner, hasn’t, by the way, started referring to himself as ‘we’. The ‘we’ is the John Godber Company, established in 2011 following a turbulent end to the writer and director’s relationship with Hull Truck Theatre.

In 1984 he beat off the competition of Danny Boyle to win the role of Hull Truck artistic director and took the company from near bankruptcy to the impressive delivery of a new GBP15m theatre in the centre of Hull in 2010. There was a lot of acrimony when the relationship came to an end (check out the Yorkshire Post archives for the background) but it all led to something brighter for Godber and his wife Jane. “We set up the company when John left Hull because as writers, directors and sometime actors, we wanted to be in control of our own work,” says Jane.

“And we realised the advantages of having a nimble organisation with few or no overheads, so all the investment goes on actors and the productions, rather than on the peripheral dressing, sometimes necessary when running large theatre buildings.” As a company, Godber has continued to tour some of his big hits, with Bouncers and Teechers inevitable remounts, alongside new work including The Kings of Hull and Scary Bikers, which starred Godber and his wife and transferred from a national tour to the West End last year. He is also in a position to examine what the lockdown means for both artists and companies.

“After lockdown the region’s response to life through its theatres will be very important, and we suspect, uniquely different for each company. I think the theatre as an art form is facing an existential pause, some theatres will completely reinvigorate their work, others may not survive, or they will return to a default factory setting.

“The most exciting thing about this ground zero is that all theatre makers are in a precarious position and in a strange way that is exhilarating. For the 26 years that I ran Hull Truck we were never sure if there would ever be a next month. “It is especially hard for students from working class backgrounds, as we are, it will be even more so after the pandemic, since freelance practitioners working in the arts have been poorly supported by the various government bailouts.

“It’s also worth mentioning that there has been a 37 per cent reduction in students studying the arts in schools, which is a very worrying signal about how we value our artists going forward and what messages are getting through about the arts as a career path.” It’s not all gloom. Paul Robinson, artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, has managed to pull together an autumn season and, due to the

fact that John, Jane and their two daughters are all performers living in a family bubble, it means a new production from the company is relatively straightforward. “When we were approached by Paul Robinson at the SJT to perform something for six days it was like we had won an Oscar. We realise that we are extremely fortunate to have actors, directors and writers currently living in the same bubble.

“It is certainly a family affair; we have other plans too, but like any company in these times it all depends which way the wind is blowing.” Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire.

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James Mitchinson

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