DERBY theatre audiences have always had a strong affinity with John Godber’s work, with the old Playhouse scoring a string of hits with shows like Bouncers and On the Piste.
Now the playwright’s delighted to be back at what is now Derby Theatre, directing a revival of April In Paris, a script penned orginally for John and his wife Jane to perform 20 years ago.
He says: “Historically I have had a huge following here. I guess it all started with Mark Clements (artistic director at the Playhouse in the 1990s) doing On The Piste. Three times he did it - it was just extraordinary.
“I came once and there was three minutes to go and the fire alarm went off in the theatre. Everyone marched to the car park but they all came back - just for three minutes. If it was me I would have just gone home.
“Audiences around here get the work, I suppose.
“Derby Playhouse was also the best run repertory theatre in the country at the time.”
The venue is now looking forward again with Sarah Brigham as artistic director at Derby Theatre. Sarah is from John’s home town Hull and was in the youth theatre at Hull Truck. So it’s no surprise that she was keen to get John creating work in Derby again.
John has been at Wakefield since breaking his long-time relationship with Hull Truck Theatre, where many of his plays were staged for the first time, in 2011.
He says: “I went there in 1984 and was told at the first board meeting that the company was insolvent and that I had to write something popular. So I wrote Up ‘n’ Under.
“We were going through a trough when I wrote April In Paris as part of the Hull Festival in 1992 and it was very successful.
“We did it with Mark Addy, who has since become big star and took it to the Edinburgh Festival. When it was done in the West End it was nominated for an Olivier Award. We have taken it to America, all over the place really.”
April in Paris is a bittersweet tale of a couple, Al and Bet, whose relationship is on the rocks and who try to rediscover romance in the French capital, where they are swept away by the language and culture.
It stars Joe McGann (The Upper Hand) and Shobna Gulati (Dinner Ladies, Coronation Street) and has been updated by John.
He says: “When looking at it again I was wondering if attitudes to Europe had changed, especially with the UKIP thing.
“I took my daughter to Paris to see if it was the same and there was a lot of Eastern European visitors going though the Al and Bet experience, struggling with the language and culture.
“It’s still a wonderful place and I am pro-European I guess. But travel for me is a paradox - the more you travel, the more disappointed you are with where you live.
“We have property in the French Alps up a mountain and where I live in Hull, near the Humber Bridge, is flat. Every time I go home I’m looking for the mountains.
“When I looked at the play again I thought it was very underwritten and Joe and Shobna are 20 years older than Jane and I were when we first did it. So you had to play to those characters’ ages.
“I aso needed some reference to ethnicity. You can’t produce a piece of work with characters of two different colours and not have at least a notional reference to how they got together and any difficulties they may have had.”
So there are changes but maybe not as many as you might think.
John says: “A critic said to me ‘hasn’t everyone been to Paris now?’
“But we have to be careful and not assume our experence is everyone’s experience. So that has gone into the re-write. The structure is the same but England as an island race is more clearly defined and Paris as a place of imagination, joy . . . and romance.”
April in Paris can be seen at Derby Theatre from tonight until July 12 and will be reviewed next week. Go to www.derbytheatre.co.uk to book.