The Debt Collectors – December 2011

7/10

By John Godber

Directed by John Godber

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st December 2011

This is a new piece by John Godber which apparently started life as a TV comedy drama, but when the TV executives couldn’t understand that drama could also have humour in it, John cancelled the telly idea and rewrote it for the stage. I’m glad he did.

The set was a bit confusing at first. Around the back of the stage were a load of theatre flats, some facing towards us so we could see the painted scenery, some facing away. To the back left of the stage, in splendid isolation, was a door, and towards the front on the right were a chair and a packing crate filled with stuff. Further back from that was a desk and chair, while there was another chair front left. An old typewriter in its case sat on the desk, and there were a cello, petrol cans, a bath, a step ladder and other paraphernalia scattered around. Many of these items came into play during the performance.

The story started off with two men, Spud and Loz, wandering around the backstage area of a theatre, a theatre which they’d both performed in several years ago in The Dumb Waiter. With their acting careers foundering, despite Spud’s stint on The Bill some years earlier, they have to find work elsewhere and both end up as debt collectors, working for a Ukrainian woman who buys up lots of debts and needs extra staff to do the collecting. They’re now back at the theatre in this new capacity, looking to collect on a debt of £17,000 for wood, and waiting to meet the owner.

Before long, Loz starts talking to the audience, explaining how he would tell the story of their career change, and thus he becomes our narrator for the evening, taking us right up to the present day with the two of them arriving back at the theatre. Through his choice of scenes, we learn of their first stumbling efforts to rake in the cash – they end up paying £20 a week each to help out one old chap who can’t afford to repay his debts – then about the changes in their personal lives and the gradual toughening up of their attitudes. Given the subject matter, there are a lot of topical references to the current difficult financial situation, and although some of the play is serious and quite moving at times, it’s never heavy, and there are plenty of laughs along the way.

Spud starts the play with a bandaged foot, an accompanying limp, and a plaster on his nose. How he got those injuries leads to some of the best humour of the evening – he shot himself in the foot, literally – and the injuries reappear as we get closer to the present within the play. The two actors cover all the parts between them, and although we never get to see their employer or Spud’s ex-wife, there were several other characters to flesh out the story, including the elderly gent who ends up getting money from them instead of repaying it.

The stuff lying around backstage becomes the various locations. There’s a lovely scene where they’ve entered a house – the door was open – and were looking round for the occupant. Spud goes upstairs by means of climbing part way up the step ladder, and starts looking around up there. He finds the woman who lives there in the bath, dead – a nasty moment. Loz went part way up the stairs/ladder, but decided he didn’t fancy seeing a dead body and left quickly, followed by Spud. I loved the way we were allowed to use our imaginations in this play, and it was commented on in the post-show.

When the two of them were sitting in a car (two chairs) getting ready to do some work in the posh part of town, they spot Spud’ ex-wife in another car with her new bloke, and from the description, it’s clear what’s she’s up to (or should that be down to?). Spud is horrified, and later gets hold of a gun which he uses to threaten the other man, a lawyer. His assumption that the gun isn’t loaded proves to be wrong, unfortunately for him, but very funny for the rest of us.

Once we’re back up-to-date, Loz has a finally wobbly which involved throwing petrol all round the place, and that’s when we find out about his secret suffering. With petrol dripping off him, he gets a phone call from their boss – turns out they were waiting in the wrong place. Loz makes an effort to smarten himself up, only partially successful, and then they head off for the meeting. It was a good ending, and brought the story full circle.

There was a post-show again tonight. I’ve noticed that these are being announced by a member of the cast as they take their final bows, and it seems to be keeping more people back to join in, a good thing. John Godber was present, and we learned a good deal about his working methods, particularly the writer/director dynamic! Rob Hudson and William Ilkley joined us as well, and John told us he’d written the parts specifically with them in mind. I commented on the way John always makes us care about the characters, even if we wouldn’t necessarily want to spend time with them in real life. He felt that was an essential part of the writer’s job; if he didn’t care about them, he wouldn’t be able to write about them. The actors felt this was one of John’s strengths as a writer, and made it easier to recognise the characters as real people. His dialogue was a bugger to learn, though, and with him directing as well, there was no chance of fiddling it.

Apparently we were a very good audience tonight, almost a Hull audience, we were so responsive compared to the matinee folk. Frankly, with a performance so entertaining, it was a real pleasure to be there.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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