One of writer John Godber’s early works was an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, his best-known play is Bouncers and his latest production is called Scary Bikers – none of which could be thought of as quiet and gentle. However, his 1982 play Happy Jack is exactly that. Based on the lives of the writer’s own grandparents who lived for their whole lives in a small Yorkshire mining village, it tells the story of their 40-year marriage, warts and all.
Told in reverse we meet Jack (Jonny Magnanti) and Liz (Tracey-Ann Wood) in their sixties not long before their deaths and the play ends as Jack asks Liz out for the first time. Over the 40 years, we see the trials and tribulations of an ordinary working-class couple living their lives the best way they can.
On a simple set consisting of old tables and chairs, a bookcase and a couple of clothes horses, the two characters appear on stage accompanied by a recording of “Little Things Mean A Lot”, rearrange all the furniture and sit listening to Mario Lanza whilst reminiscing about singers and shows they’ve seen, swapping anecdotes about places they’ve been to (not that many) and events from their past. It’s all a bit mundane and routine but this has been their lives for the past 40 years. Nothing much happens but we’re soon drawn into their story.
Underlying the gentleness is the terrible hardships and deprivations Jack went through as a miner and his politics are soon made clear – this is the working man’s lot that he has to endure in order to put a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. Jack certainly isn’t happy, and we soon find out that the title is ironic. However, underneath that hard, angry Yorkshire exterior, he’s a poet and spends his time writing poems which he loves reading aloud to Liz. He may be a hard nut on the outside, but it seems there’s something softer on the inside.
Wood and Magnanti are both excellent and have a lot of chemistry that makes us feel for their characters as their stories unfold. Apart from Liz and Jack, they also play a number of other parts and there’s a superb scene as Wood plays their grandson who Jack is giving a bath to whilst telling a hilarious story about a lion. Jack has realised that he didn’t spend enough time with his own son Ian as he should have and he’s making up for lost time with Ian’s son.
The story is told as if it was a book with the actors reading out chapter titles and page numbers and breaking the fourth wall, letting the audience know exactly where they are in time. It’s a bit episodic and there are frequent fades to black, but these devices work well in the storytelling.
If I had a small criticism, it’s that as the play is only 85 minutes long, might have worked better if there hadn’t been a 15-minute interval, but I suppose with the theatre being at the back of a pub, there’s always a reason to have an interval!
Happy Jack is a delightful piece – a proper “dramedy”. Full marks to Tracey-Ann Wood and Jonny Magnanti for making us truly believe in the two protagonists and to director Dan Armour for allowing the love, humour, joy and sadness of Godber’s writing to shine through.
Review by Alan Fitter
Happy Jack is a funny and touching play about the lives of Jack and Liz. Set in a West Yorkshire mining village, the play is inspired by John Godber’s own grandparents and follows the couple’s 40-year marriage through good times and bad.
The play weaves through the story of this ordinary working-class family and retells snippets of their lives together, the love, sadness, anger, joy and conflict.
Balancing humour with some tougher realities, Happy Jack highlights the lives of working miners and the terrible legacies that many of them were left with long after leaving the pits.
“… Liz’s favourite and lasting expression was ‘Happy Jack’. She felt pleased at awarding him this title. He was always miserable or, more to the point, appeared to be so.”
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre,
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH