First published in The Times, Wednesday May 25 2022
Hull Truck’s 50th anniversary programme would not be complete without a contribution from John Godber. The playwright and screenwriter, who served as the artistic director for many years, created much of his best-known work for the theatre. In recent days, the company announced its studio space will be renamed the Godber Studio in celebration of his legacy.
Much of this new production, created in collaboration with the John Godber Company, will be familiar to anyone who caught the original run of Teechers at Hull Truck in 1987, or one of its many revivals. Godber’s update once again takes the form of a play-within-a-play, with a trio of young drama enthusiasts enacting a year in the life of Whitewall School, a thinly veiled version of their own beleaguered place of learning, populated by a memorable cast of characters.
As in the original, three versatile actors — Levi Payne, Purvi Parmar and Martha Godber — take on all the roles. The principal thread follows Siân Nixon (Godber), the energetic novice drama teacher, and the ways she finds to get her students fired up about Shakespeare, Beckett and Peter Weiss. There are numerous diversions into other aspects of secondary school life, too, from the strict hierarchies of the staff room to the wilds of the playground, not to mention the long shadow cast over the impoverished Whitewall by St George’s, the nearby private school.
Into this template, John Godber introduces contemporary references to everything from Netflix to Sue Gray’s inquiry into Downing Street parties. In bringing this story up to date, he shows how the Covid-19 pandemic has further compounded a lack of hope, interest, or opportunity for those at the bottom of the social heap. While the protagonists, Salty, Gail and Hobby, find a diversion from lockdown and online learning in drama lessons, many of their classmates simply vanish without trace.
Godber’s script was informed by in-depth discussions with local teachers, but, while the play is fiercely political, it doesn’t feel didactic. The emphasis in Mark Babych’s spare, invigorating production is on capturing the thrumming energy of a school beset by challenges, while celebrating the thrill and possibilities of drama. In this regard, the show is a triumph; there may only be three actors on stage, but by the end of the two-hour running time, it feels as though we’ve seen a cast of thousands.
To June 11; hulltruck.co.uk