John Godber’s 1982 play Happy Jack is a two-hander based on the lives of Godber’s grandparents: Jack – a “hard man” miner who writes poetry – and Liz, his stay-at-home wife. The play works backwards through their relationship, starting when they’re in their 70s and ending on the day they started “walking out” aged 17.
Watching the play is like spending time with your grandparents, particularly if they’re from West Yorkshire, as mine are.
Jonny Magnanti’s Jack comes into his own as grandad to the young Godber. Like many working-class, northern men, he’s steely to most, but “soft as a brush” with his grandchildren. However, Jack is not a likeable man and Godber’s reasoning for this – his hard life in the mines – lacks depth. It’s also mentioned that at one time he hit Liz, but this is brushed off. This might be realistic, but it’s problematic nonetheless.
Tracey-Ann Wood is wonderful as Liz, a loving wife with a playful streak. She doubles in other roles, playing Godber, a Lancaster barman and a next-door neighbour. House-proud, her desires are considered unimportant by Jack – and are similarly inconsequential to the play.
Dan Armour, both as director and designer, brings a homely quality to the production. The realistic set includes comfy chairs, records and a rug my grandparents once owned. Amelia Louise Herridge Ishak’s lighting aids the swift scene changes.
Godber touches on themes of depression, fatherhood and class, but due to the play’s structure, a lot of these subjects are dismissed as quickly as they arrive. More exploration, particularly of Liz’s mental health and her ambitions, would have been interesting. Happy Jack may be inspired by a man, but his wife comes across as the more intriguing character. But this snapshot of West Yorkshire life feels more concerned with realism than drama.