Theatre Review: Happy Jack @ The New Vic

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Photo- New Vic Theatre

Happy Jack has a particular resonance for husband and wife team John Godber and Jane Thornton. Godber wrote the play for Jane and it marked the beginning of a theatrical partnership that has flourished over the decades.

Based on the life lived by his own family, Godber has produced a play that is observational comedy gold. Jack is a gruffly typical portrayal of a Yorkshire miner who spent all of his working life at the coalface, lived in the same mining town from birth to death and spent all his years of marriage in the same council house. His partner Liz has an even worse lot in life as she is confined to the house almost as if it were a prison as she passes her days cleaning away the dust created by the local industry.

Jack would have been a difficult man to live with. On the surface he seems incapable of affection and prefers to sort out any problems with his fists – though never against Liz – and there are several comedic moments where we see Jack solve his problems with his physical presence. All of this leads to the inevitable bickering between the partners that would suggest to the outsider that this was a loveless marriage.

That assumption would be completely wrong. The fine script allows Jack to show his human side and beneath the hard exterior there is a man of passion and imagination. Unable to express himself vocally, he writes passionate poetry to Liz and about his life in the pits. He also can devise an alternate life for himself as a man who almost played for England and was the best lion-tamer in the country.

In a mundane life that follows a soul-sapping routine, little things mean a lot as the song lyrics state. An annual visit to the seaside and bathing the grandson become major events.

At first glance the premise of the play does not seem promising for the modern audience. Set in a time and industrial background that John admits is as unfamiliar to the younger generation as dinosaurs, this play could have been dismissed as only fit for the archives.

However, this is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre whose underlying themes resonate today. It highlights that the majority of partnerships do not contain earth-shattering events but the partners take pleasure from the simple things in life and find a humour that allows for an affectionate life. The one major difference is that hopefully a husband in the 21st century will not be as oblivious to his wife’s illnesses as Jack is to Liz.

We are informed at the start of proceedings that Jack outlived Liz but could not exist without her and the action is told in reverse chronological order back to the couple’s first date as Jack writes the book of their life. It would be the way that Jack would have done it. A man not of speech but definitely of words.

John Godber and Jane Thornton are impeccable in their roles and play any other incidental character that makes an appearance to produce a slice of highly-entertaining theatre that is co-directed by Godber and Neil Sissons with design by Graham Kirk.

Happy Jack has a running time of 90 minutes including interval and continues until April 30th. For ticket information contact 01782 717962 or tickets@newvictheatre.org.uk