Send the elevator back down

Throughout lockdown John Godber has been making theatre from home, casting his family in lead roles. Now his daughter is aiming to support young theatre makers in East Yorkshire too

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For many of us, summer 2020 hasn’t been a particularly productive time. For playwright John Godber and his family, though, it’s gone quite differently.

“Everybody was saying ‘let’s be creative’ and for somebody who’s been doing it for 40 years, that was the last thing I wanted to do,” John says. “I just thought I’d cut the lawn and walk the dog. But then I felt I needed to respond in some way.”

By June he’d made his own radio drama series, Essentials, following a Yorkshire family through lockdown. Producing it was simple enough: John was confined to home with his wife Jane Thornton and their daughters Martha and Liz, all of whom are experienced actors, so the family themselves became the cast.

“We recorded it in one of the girls’ bedrooms, just to give us something to do. We were meant to be doing another stage play, but that evaporated like everything else.”

The play in question, Angels of the North, concerned a northern taxi firm around the time of the 2019 general election. Written by John, directed by Jane and co-starring John and Martha, after an initial run it was set for more dates, including a West End transfer. The pandemic put paid to that, but then John was approached by Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, which was looking into staging socially distanced productions.

“I said: ‘Yeah, that’d be great – and I’d like to write something new.’”

The new play is called Sunny Side Up! “It’s set right now, in a fictional seaside resort on the east coast, where the B&B trade has suffered through Covid and things are just starting to get back to a kind of normality.”

Again, the whole family is involved – John as writer, director and actor, with Jane and Martha completing the cast and Liz as stage manager.

In part, Sunny Side Up! has evolved out of Godber’s intentions for Angels of the North.

“That was essentially about the demise of the Red Wall and what the voters in all those places expected Boris to deliver for them. In a strange way, Sunny Side Up! asks the same kind of questions. I’m fascinated by class and Covid-19. The idea of people from certain backgrounds looking at those holiday resorts through different eyes – that’s meat and drink to me. It’s very personal, about the east coast reminding you where you’ve come from.”

That’s not all the family’s been up to. Martha has launched the Godber Theatre Foundation, to provide financial support and mentorship for young people from Hull and East Yorkshire studying drama and theatre arts.

She says: “Growing up with my parents both in the industry, I was able to have opportunities which allowed me to gateway into my job as an actor. That’s where it came from – just wanting to give other people those opportunities, creating professional connections to help develop their careers.”

John adds: “If you forget where you come from, you’re missing a real driver in your work. Not to play the big violin card, but I failed my 11-plus. All my family had been miners. I went to a comprehensive school. I didn’t go to Eton or Oxford, but I’ve done all right. In a way it’s now our responsibility to send the elevator back down, if you like.”

For the Godber Theatre Foundation see thejohngodbercompany.co.uk/thegodbertheatrefoundation

Image: Jane Thornton, Martha Godber, John Godber, Elizabeth Godber have released Sunny Side Up! – recorded in one of their bedrooms

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