According to John Godber’s latest comedy, Sunnyside was named the worst seaside town in the country by the Sunday Times. Getting to this fictional resort takes a bus and two trains. Naturally, it’s at the end of the line. “If you don’t like it, don’t come,” is the gruff motto of Godber’s Barney, a man most unsuited to the role of bed-and-breakfast landlord.
Were it not for Covid-19, Sunnyside would still be going the way of so many seaside towns; stuck in the past, suffering economic decline and home to endless vape shops. But with the return of the staycation, it is suddenly being noticed again. The “no vacancies” signs are out – and the us-and-them schism in Britain’s class system is more apparent than ever.
Because beneath the very funny surface of Godber’s play, superbly performed by the playwright with his wife, Jane Thornton, and daughter, Martha Godber, is a state-of-the-nation broadside about the haves and have nots.
Barney is a tremendous character: a lumbering, tell-it-like-it-is bear of a man who is lovable despite himself. But Godber’s real interest lies in the other character he plays. Brother-in-law Graham is a working-class kid made good who, thanks to the pandemic, has returned to his home town for a weekend break. Here, he tries to reconcile the secondary-modern boy he once was with the retired university professor he became, his left-leaning values now theoretical, not practical.
There are shades of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers in the contrasting trajectories of Graham and his sister Tina (Thornton), but Godber’s contribution to the “left behind” debate has an urgency of its own. The audience goes from raucous laughter to focused silence when Graham is confronted by the garrulous Kelly (Martha Godber), a guest at the bed-and-breakfast who calls him out for abandoning Sunnyside to pursue his own interests. He’s all for getting working-class kids into the education system, but too fond of his middle-class lifestyle to see them as equals.
Martha Godber is chillingly surly as daughter Cath, just as Thornton, as her aunt Sue, is ever eager to put on a bright smile. The three of them handle Godber’s short-sharp dialogue with conversational precision in a show that feels fun but bites hard.