John Godber is well known for being pretty prolific; since setting up the John Godber Company in 2010, in partnership with the Theatre Royal Wakefield, both his old and new work receive regular tours annually. The partnership’s latest joint effort comes in the form of This Might Hurt, influenced by Godber’s own experiences with our NHS. With the writer also assuming the role of director, I looked forward to seeing how this highly relevant-sounding narrative would be realised.
This Might Hurt tells the story of an actor called Jack Skipton (Rob Angell), whose claims to fame are playing a doctor in Casualty, doing a sauerkraut commercial and supposedly knowing “that DCI Banks off the telly”. The latter claim is especially backed up by his 81-year-old Aunt Bettie, also played by Skipton, who calls him round to have a look at her fence one day. But Jack’s been having some problems with his back, and on the same day is taken to hospital. Cue several costume and accent changes from Rachael Abbey and Josie Morley who both play a range of doctors, nurses, carers and patients as Jack and his Auntie wade their way through our famous health service.
Godber’s structure here is pretty clear; a light-hearted first act cleverly introduces characters through well-written comedic dialogue, and a second act poetically descends into an aphoristic modern tragedy. His text is carried well by the three performers, who treat each of their performances with sensitivity and clarity. Abbey and Morley perfectly bring to life characters all cut from the same cloth in one subtle way or another, connected to the NHS and its successes and failings. Angell crafts a refreshingly dry, no-nonsense silhouette of a man who’s always been excellent at portraying the emotions of fictional characters but not been much good at dealing with his own.
The shift in Godber’s text from prose to poetry is quite striking; in the second act, characters speak in rhyming couplets and other poetic styles. There’s something slightly alienating about it, and it even looks to be a nod to the style of a scene from one Bertolt Brecht’s plays. While it takes some getting used to, the overall style is well handled and becomes incredibly meaningful.
These performances excellently fill York Theatre Royal’s main house space, reaching far beyond the confines of its Georgian proscenium arch, and are firmly buttressed by a simple and highly clear scenography. It consists of a set design from Foxton, sparsely made from a few white frames and bits of furniture. This immediately gives a weighty responsibility to the play’s performers to indicate where we are in the narrative, which contains several location changes. Thankfully, their clear execution of Godber’s text pulled it off, and Foxton’s design comes across as refreshingly simple and uncluttered.
It also looks as if Graham Kirk’s lighting design has been stripped back to basics – it’s been a long time since I’ve seen spotlights used so frequently in professional productions. These spotlights often illuminate the performers as they speak to the audience and pull focus. In recent years, lighting designs have become more complex, and designers have tended to shy away from simple gobos and shapes. But this lighting design appears to perfectly complement Godber’s humble text, and is a welcome, refreshing alternative to more complex designs.
This Might Hurt is a poignant, well-executed piece of theatre. It’s a funny, heart-breaking look at the flaws of organisation and hierarchy within one of the most prominent medical powerhouses, and is certainly a must see.
This Might Hurt is playing at York Theatre Royal until 22 October and is on tour afterwards. For more information and tickets, visit The John Godber Company website.
Photo: Amy Charles Media