John Godber’s 1992 play April in Paris has been revived for a major UK tour. Its current stop is at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley. Godber directs his own play, and has updated it to incorporate references to the financial crash and the impact it has had on working class unemployed couples.
Joe McGann (The Upper Hand) and Shobna Gulati (Dinnerladies) play Al and Bet, a couple married for almost three decades. The kids have flown the nest, leaving them rattling around with little to say to one another in a tiny new-build. Al, a frustrated painter, is unemployed and depressed, whilst Bet spends what little money she earns on treats for herself. Their luck seems to turn when Bet wins a competition for a day in Paris – but can they forget all their troubles and enjoy a brief trip away from home?
Godber’s observational humour is as acute as ever, and he uses April in Paris to say plenty about the limitations of possibilities for working class people, and the cruelty of rising expectations. Yet he does so in a very safe way, never allowing Al and Bet to be anything other than affable, and this works against its credibility.
There are plenty of moments to laugh out loud, and Godber’s wit is infectious. However, whilst the story has been updated for the twenty-first century, the humour hasn’t, and the style of relentless set-up followed by punch line feels dated now, like something out of an old sitcom. We were also not keen on the mechanical breaking of the fourth wall. When Godber left one character alone on stage he had no choice but to allow them to address the audience directly: but this comes out of nowhere and seems to be used for no better reason than that the writer has written himself into a corner.
Working in favour of the production is the casting. Shobna Gulati, a little quiet at first, is a natural choice for Bet, bringing her familiar ditzy persona to the part. Joe McGann is excellent as Al, capturing the frustration of a quick-witted, capable man facing the realisation his life hasn’t amounted to much. Gulati and McGann are the biggest selling point for the show – they maintain a natural banter and exude warmth from start to finish.
One problem besetting the production is that it takes a while to reach a canter. There are several scenes between Al and Bet (save for mime artist actors doubling as stage hands – the only performers) outside their house. Set design (Pip Leckenby) leaves the actors confined to a tight, drab and colourless space centre stage, whilst an ocean of backdrop has clouds projected onto it. Although the design succeeds in accentuating the stifling domestic condition of Al and Bet, it would work better on a smaller stage. For a big space like the Churchill, the design is too restrictive and, along with the steadily rotating clouds, lends an unfortunate sense of creeping ennui. There are scenes in which the design works, such as when it doubles for a ferry (some fantastic comedy dancing and nausea-acting from Gulati), where the lighting (Graham Kirk) helps to bring out a strong sense of place and movement. Mercifully, the stage opens up in the second half, and the colourful creation of Paris utilises the space far better and is easier on the audience’s eye.
With some reservations about the play itself and its execution in this touring production, the bittersweet world John Godber creates is an enjoyable one to visit for an evening. Despite other factors working against them, Shobna Gulati and Joe McGann shine, and are principally responsible for bringing April in Paris fully to life.