Brighton Fringe 2014
Al and Bet’s relationship is on the rocks. He has recently lost his job, she works in a shoe shop and can only dream of a better life, but things are about to change…
John Godber’s April in Paris, updated for our brave brave new world twenty two years on, portrays one dysfunctional working class marriage in all its combative glory. It still feels a little dated – references to Alan Whicker, and French toilets being holes in the ground (really? – maybe in the seventies, but not now!) won’t be understood by anybody under fifty years old. Safely enough though, the first night at the Theatre Royal was populated by a fairly aged demographic , who laughed and chuckled through all the jokes.
And maybe safe is the word that describes the experience of the play, since the trials and tribulation of very narrow minded Brits abroad are an easy target. Beneath that though there is an underlying savagery in their relationship that stops the play from being too flippant; when Bet says that she has thought of killing Al, her everyday tone and almost off the hand description of how she might smother him with a pillow, emphasises the real feelings beneath the small battles of a couple constantly bickering.
The two lead actors are sharp and convincing in their parts despite Al’s (Joe McGann) craggy aristocratic face and Bet(Shobna Gulati) being rather more beautiful than you would expect. I did wonder whether the actors would carry off that much sympathy if they were physically short and fat and ugly, rather than these rather good looking, stylish people. Both actors relish the dialogue, convincingly portray the staggering gait of those unused to stormy weather at sea, and make great use of a set that is suggestive rather than totally realistic. It’s an easy piece to watch, the repartee is smart and believable, but there is an empty heart at the centre of it. There are poignant moments, when Al shows Bet how to see the Mona Lisa with his artist’s eye. Then Al, overwhelmed by the Mona Lisa and the art at the Louvre, turns in on himself, saying that they might as well go, they’ve only got ten minutes left and it’s never going to be enough to take it all in.
April in Paris accurately depicts how a married couple can choose to snipe and cavil at one another without quite delivering the death blow, the final smothering with a pillow, and always be the worse for that. Their attitude to being abroad is mirrored in their relationship, it’s all hostile incomprehension and put-downs. There are occasional glimpses of breakthrough – and Joe McGann and Shobna Gulati are skilled at portraying them, but they are mostly eclipsed by another last word that deflates.
Overall this is a good solid mainstream play for the Theatre Royal, with impeccable professional performances and production that make it worth seeing. The play invites comparison with the work of Mike Leigh, taking ordinary people and their thoughts and feelings, but it’s not as deep, not as twisted and not as dark – we laugh at their put-downs throughout, we don’t really experience the pain behind them. So a play that doesn’t push boundaries, but does entertain, and is a virtuoso performance throughout.