Having discovered White Cobra Productions back in April when we saw their jolly Shakespeare Revue, I was keen to see what other tricks they had up their sleeve. For their current show, September in the Rain, they have left behind the world of song and dance and gone for a traditional two-hander play, written by John Godber. It was first produced back in 1983, and is largely drawn on and inspired by his own grandparents’ lives, and their annual sojourn to Blackpool for their holidays. I usually associate John Godber with more rough and ready settings, like Bouncers or Up ‘n’ Under, so to discover this rather gentle and Alan Bennett-esque play was a very pleasant surprise.
We meet Liz and Jack, an elderly Yorkshire couple, preparing to go on their week’s trip to Blackpool, and, as they reminisce about previous holidays, the play takes us back to their younger days so that we can relive many of their experiences with them. The play becomes an amalgamation of several holidays, which, whilst there are occasional sunny days, mainly reflect several Septembers in the rain (hence the title). We see their fondness for particular guest houses; fish and chip suppers (mainly takeaway, occasionally the treat of an eat-in), dealing with the donkeys on the beach; memories of their children doing daft things; and it’s all interlaced with an elaborate sequence of bickering that acts as a cement to their entire relationship.
This is one of those plays which triggers your mind and memory into recollections of events in your own childhood. We never used to go to Blackpool as a kid (far too Northern for the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s liking) but we would go to Devon, or Bournemouth, or Ramsgate; and, as Liz and Jack encourage their kids to be the first to spot the Blackpool tower from the car, we always had the race to see who could be first to spot the sea. I remember the long walks along the beaches; my dad in a deckchair barely taking off his tie; tickets for the end of the pier show; sharing tables with other holidaymakers (sometimes nice, sometimes tedious); staying up late to watch Match of the Day in the guest house’s TV lounge – televisions in your room were just unheard of! Just as Liz and Jack’s daughter Pam sings at a seaside talent show, I remember being entered for the Butlins Bognor Picture of Health contest, amongst dozens of others equally bored children. I didn’t win. I also remember being forced to wear those ghastly pacamacs that Liz and Jack sport because of the inevitable downpours associated with the English summertime. I quake with embarrassment at the memory of being caught out in the rain on the Isle of Wight one year with no rain hat (shock horror) and the only alternative the Dowager could find for me in the local shops was…. a tea cosy. I spent the afternoon with this ****ing tea cosy on my head in case I caught a cold. I should have phoned Childline.
I don’t think Liz and Jack would have been that cruel to their kids – instead they would have saved their verbal cruelty for each other. I doubt if there would be anyone who’d been on a family holiday as a kid who hadn’t witnessed their parents rip each other to shreds like Liz and Jack do. Because that generation worked really hard, and laboriously, and probably only had one week off a year, the pressure to enjoy themselves on the annual summer holiday was really intense. There’d be months and months of happy expectation, and then it would be all over in a flash. And of course holidays are never that perfect, and travel plans always go amiss somewhere along the line. So while Jack takes a relaxed and practical view of the travel plans, Liz is frantic with packing, traffic, the weather, the destination, and every minutiae in between. Once they reached Blackpool, it would be Jack’s turn to get agitated when things go wrong – the room too small, the waiter too handsome, the donkey too flea-ridden. Hs method of complaining would be virtual fisticuffs, much to the embarrassment of Liz who would far sooner see it out in silence – until she got Jack on her own, that is.
It’s a very funny, charming and nostalgic play, and you feel Kate Billingham and Richard Jordan get right to the heart of their characters. There’s something of the Olivia Colman in Kate Billingham’s portrayal of a woman who normally manages to stay just on the safe side of high anxiety but will erupt when pushed. We both loved how you could see how one little word or action would slowly but inexorably turn her from Seaside Sunshine to Tyrantosaurus Rex. I also really enjoyed her voice and characterisation for their dining companion, all toothily smirking and snaffling the last biscuit. Richard Jordan too was perfect as the taciturn Jack, in his old age rarely needing to add more to a conversation than a considered “aye” or a risky “nay”, grimacing at the world going by, not miserably, just elderly. There were some lovely exchanges between the two – for example, an excruciatingly funny scene in the deckchairs when Liz kept on insisting that Jack took various clothes off to enjoy the sun whilst he was perfectly happy minding his own business fully clad – she would have tried the legendary patience of a saint. There’s another great scene where Liz’s travel anxiety causes a car accident – I’m pretty sure Mrs Chrisparkle recognised something from her own childhood there; a memorable moment where Jack gets his own back at Liz from the top of the Blackpool Tower; and their final scene where they go back into the pub for one last drink is very heart-warming.
It’s all neatly and simply staged, with just a few chairs, props and sound effects to awaken, in the audience’s mind, their own childhood holiday memories, both affectionate and otherwise. The backdrop slides that revealed different aspects of and locations around Blackpool weren’t really necessary as our imagination did all that work for us – although I did like the image of the Ford Popular. A very charming and funny performance of a very moving and endearing play, it’s on at the cosy and intimate Playhouse theatre in Northampton until Saturday 3rd October, and then has some touring dates later in October and November which you can find here. Definitely worth catching!