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September in the Rain

by on 4 April 2018

Compact, Unsophisticated, Delightful

September in the Rain

by John Godber

OHADS, Noel Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre until 7th April

Review by Mark Aspen

As I drove through the grey Berkshire countryside to visit cousins this Easter Monday, I mused how typical an Easter Bank Holiday it was, cold, blustery, raining, floods. (To reach their village out in the sticks, we had to try four different routes in turn to get through the floods.) I can even remember one Easter rambling in the Surrey Hills in the snow, but to be fair, some rare Easter Mondays have been scorchers.

So how fitting then that OHADS opened its production of Godber’s compact two-hander, September in the Rain, the day after a very very wet Bank Holiday. You see, this delightful nugget of nostalgia is set at the British seaside during a series of holidays in the decades after the war. To those of a certain age, it is a damply cosy and all-too familiar scene.

It is both certain and familiar to the married couple, bluff Yorkshire coalminer Jack, and his wife Liz, a working class housewife, indelible stamps of their time and place. For their holidays, the hesitant highlight of each year, they unwaveringly head for Blackpool, brash, big, and bold, a town, even now, totally unapologetic for being what it is, as proud as its famous Tower. (Eat your heart out Eiffel Tower, Blackpool is much more fun!)

 
However, under John Godber’s skilful pen, Jack and Liz’s annual trip to Blackpool is more than a holiday: it is a metaphor not only for their marriage but for their life as a whole, and, by extension, to the marriages and lives of all of us. This bitter-sweet comedy holds up a mirror to us, truthfully and uncomfortably. After all, what married couple has not squabbled over trivia, regretted it, and then enjoyed the making-it-up-again.

The holidays start as newly-weds, and continue with a young family and on into later years. With a backdrop of stars or raindrops and a hint of the Blackpool illuminations (alias Malcolm Maclenan’s lighting) we follow the hopeful journeys there and the weary ones back, to “get away from the Bingo and the slops”. The journey is the source of many squabbles; firstly how: by Wallace Arnold coach or by the fitful Ford Popular. Car wins, for although Liz complains that at first it “smells of newness”, Jack is his own man and wants to stop when he wants to stop. However, actually moving is often the problem. A prang in the pouring rain when stuck in a crawl through the “Preston bottleneck” gives Jack chance to vent some aggro on the following lorry driver. Perhaps this is as well, as his frustration is often expressed against Liz, usually not deserved, although locking the car keys in the boot was a step too far.

Within the times and the culture, feelings are repressed, left bottled up; although sometimes vented through metaphoric Preston bottlenecks. Jack resents the decades of working “in a hole in the ground”, his hands that the fortune teller would not be able to read through the callouses, the blue steaks of coal dust ingrained in his back which, even on a beach holiday, he is loath to expose to the sun.

Liz’s repressions are of a different nature. Queuing for an ice-cream gives an opportunity to eye up the physiques of young men passers-by, and she even dares a little flirting. However, when she casually comments favourably on the good looks of the waiter in the Tower tearooms, we see the green-eyed monster just squinting into the picture.

In this finely crafted mood-piece, the thin vein of sadness that runs through the hefty seams of saucy seaside postcard humour is the irony that Jack cannot allow himself to express his feelings for Liz, whereas Liz, who needs that expression, cannot allow herself to expect it.

Any release of their true feelings is vicariously, through third parties, such as the fictitious protagonists of The Student Prince, which even, in spite of himself, draws a tear or three from Jack; or through reminiscences of their toddler daughter in a talent show shyly singing “My girl’s a Yorkshire gal”.

Nevertheless, under their tough carapaces, we see that they are all too human and their vulnerability aches.

Godber’s September in the Rain is an exceptional observational study, and is brought into sharp focus in director Helen Smith’s OHADS production, in which she is blessed by two fine actors, Andy Smith as Jack and Helen Geldert as Liz. They work in well-honed unison to give just the right balance of humour and pathos in well-studied performances.

Andy Smith’s Jack is a man of great humanity at heart, but totally buttoned-up, exhibiting what elsewhere would be called stiff upper lip, a grittiness that belies one’s feelings as somehow unmanly. Smith depicts with great accuracy Jack’s falling back on aggression as his panacea, when he is not a violent man in the least, and on sarcasm when he is not really a cynic.

Helen Geldert’s portrait of Liz is as a warm and loving wife and mother, whose passions are as equally sequestered in her heart as are those of the husband, who she deep down fervently believes she could be closer to. Gelert puts across that pragmatism and the acceptance of the situation typical of a woman in her station at that time. As a bonus, we get some very nice singing to boot.

Both actors have great comic timing for, in spite of my heavy analysis, September in the Rain is a very entertaining comedy, foil to the pathos perhaps, but true knockabout broad humour.

So we have little interpolated sketches, the joys of paddling in the sea (cold and with vicious jellyfish), the visit to the waxworks (not convincing until we reach the “anatomical” section) and the loin wrenching ride on the big-dipper (bloody ‘ell, how high is this going to go?). Comedy spices the stark reality: eating fish and chips from the newspaper flavoured with cold vinegar and rainwater; or being buttonholed at the breakfast table by another couple, whose main topic of conversation is Sam, the sanitary man’s recounting of his freeing massive turds from manholes.

Notwithstanding the jellyfish, waxworks and fairground rides, the culmination of the manufactured thrills in Jack and Liz’s life is going to the top of the Tower, an allegory for what they ought to have achieved, and the thrills that they might have achieved. But once only, before pushing out a figurative boat with a visit to the Tower Ballroom for the last, the very last, waltz.

September in the Rain is a well-crafted tale of unabashed and unsophisticated simplicity. Great comedy yes, sobering pathos certainly. One can almost feel the warm spring sunshine slipping out from behind the Easter rainclouds.

Mark Aspen
April 2018

Images courtesy of OHADS

 

From → Drama, Reviews

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