Happy Jack was a miserable git who spent 8 hours a day in the pitch black digging out coal. He took his anger out on any man who wronged him, ‘and the wife in the early days,’ he freely admits. Happy Jack is John Godber’s homage to his to his grandparents and their 60 year marriage, writes Michael Holland.
The two-hander opens with Jack and Liz Munroe tidying up together, in silence, in sync and in harmony. After so many years together they know each other’s moods, habits and modus operandi and the housework becomes almost balletic until the loving couple come together centre stage and the play begins with Liz dying of cancer and Jack from ‘miner’s disease’ not long after. For the next 90 minutes we watch their lives in reverse, each change in time combined with a change of jacket or cardie: trouble with neighbours, Jack bonding with his grandchildren but not with his son; a scary childbirth for Liz, holidaying in Blackpool every year, the honeymoon, the wedding (‘Smile, Jack!’ ‘No!’), the courting (We never held hands), and the first time Jack asked Liz to go out with him…
Godber dissects the couple’s relationship as they grow old together, with the love, the rows, the smiles and the troubles that journey alongside relationships. There is the depression caused by being stuck at home all day performing the same chores all day, that has Liz on tablets. We see how Jack is stern at work with the men under him, and how Liz then wheedles out his softer side at home: ‘You’re like a big kid, you,’ she says tenderly.
Weaving throughout the story is Jack’s poetry, something he has written since a boy, and which shows the true feelings that lie beneath the tough facade. Poems that depict the unfairness of life when he writes about working down the pit; and the pride he has with owning his own house, but not much about anything else. ‘Why don’t you write a poem about me,’ Liz asks. But the poetry was the limit to Jack showing any feelings. Unless it was anger. Jack’s life’s work, his raison d’être, was achieved by providing for a wife so she didn’t have to work other than cook for her husband, bring up the children, and clean the house he’d bought.
Happy Jack is about a lifetime of routine, about memories from lives lived in a rut, but written so well and performed so beautifully by Jonny Magnanti and Tracey-Ann Wood that it seemed almost a joyous existence; Happy Jack told of a life that gave The Munroes enough love that it felt like a life to envy.
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH from until 25th May. Time: 7.30pm. Admission; £16, £13. Phone: 0333 666 3366