Seasons in the Sun
West Yorkshire Playhouse
The dustbin depot provides a fitting backdrop to John Godber's tale of wasted talent, writes Heather Neill
Paul and Spag are waiting for their A-level results. To earn some cash during the 10 weeks between school and - they hope - college, they get jobs at a dustbin depot. John Godber did just that himself and his new play, Seasons in the Sun, set in a mining village in 1974, tells their story.
Audiences can be certain that this is an accurate picture of life among the rubbish, down to the men's language, which is often as ripe as the smells that emanate from the blocked drains and lavatories which they also clean up. It is ironic that just as David Blunkett is calling for a policy of zero tolerance on foul language, school parties are being taken to watch a play full of the stuff - written by an ex-teacher. Well, as John Godber, once a drama teacher and now the second most-performed living playwright in the United Kingdom, says: "If you are going to tell a story about binmen, you might as well tell the truth. That's the power of theatre, to tell life like it is."
Matthew Booth, who plays Paul (familiar to young audiences as the heart-throb in ITV's Children's Ward), adds that teenagers and their teachers understand this. "After a sharp intake of breath, they realise it's not sensationalised," he says. "It's just how people speak." And after a couple of seasons of Shakespeare, he is relishing the chance to use everyday language - language he finds quite recognisable from his time working as a car mechanic.
Seasons in the Sun is, of course, a rite-of-passage play. Paul gets the grades he needs to go to Bristol to study drama, Spag (played by James Weaver) fails to secure a place to pursue his commitment to art, and is at a loose end. It would be a shame to give away the ending, but Spag's situation is poignant. Godber sums it up: "It's about waste. He's a talented artist, but he didn't get through the hoops."
The system still fails some as it did in 1974, and John Godber is eloquent on the marginalisation of the arts in the national curriculum. Nevertheless, he believes there is more than one way to grow up - who knows what Spag might achieve? "Maybe the examiners aren't ready for him. Maybe he's ahead of his time."
Paul, though, clearly has the advantage of a home where education is respected. Spag's family, on the other hand, would be quite satisfied to see him bring home a wage. And it is certainly not Godber's intention to show the binmen as losers. "I've tried to be balanced. The binmen and the smart young lads find mutual respect in the end." The theme of waste applies to some of the men too - lack of confidence or motivation has prevented them making the most of their talents.
Ever the obedient student, Paul finds himself in one scene up to his armpits in sewage, just too well-disciplined to say no when an adult tells him to do something, however distasteful. As Matthew says: "Yes, you take it as gospel what you're told in school. Life's frightening. Paul only really knows school." This, and the characterisation of the men, some of them in a rut, some of them eccentric, allows for plenty of comic opportunities.
Paul and Spag hide their artistic ambitions to begin with, predicting ridicule (just as John Godber and Matthew Booth did in similar circumstances). They say they plan careers in PE and engineering and then, says their creator, "having cast themselves in those roles, they have to play them. A lot of people do that. What fascinates me is the abrasiveness of working men, which belies their sensitivity." When Spag shows his paintings to one of the men, he gets a surprisingly supportive response, just as Matthew did when he finally announced at the garage that his ambition was to be an actor.
John Godber, just 44, trained as a drama teacher at Bretton Hall, in West Yorkshire and has since acquired a masters degree and a doctorate. From 1978 to 1984 he was a full-time drama teacher, but then his writing skills were spotted at the National Student Drama Festival by the then Sunday Times critic, James Fenton. He wrote for Grange Hill while still a teacher and soon became a full-time playwright.
Does he ever miss the classroom? "Yes, I do miss the excitement of switching the light on for young people," he says. Another new play, a musical called Thick as a Brick, is touring. In this a teacher flicks the magic switch with the help of dance. "It's unashamedly a feel-good piece. Teaching is a difficult job, but you can make a difference." But, he hastens to add: "It's not candyfloss. Theatre, like the best lessons, should mix entertainment with pedagogy." John Godber, "still a real socialist - you can't wash it off", sums up his feelings about the arts in education. "I believe in the importance of drama in schools - I've seen it work, not only on myself, but on the kids I've taught. It's crucial. The arts are about living in a world where we respect each other."
The West Yorkshire Playhouse production in association with Hull Truck of Seasons in the Sun is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse unitl June 10. Tickets: 0113 213 7700.Thick as a Brick is touring. Information: 01482 325012 .