John Godber’s Do I Love You?, currently touring until early next year, is primarily a love letter to Northern Soul. Confession time: I don’t know much (anything, really) about Northern Soul. I can’t say it ever permeated to the Chiltern village where I was brought up. I knew Skiing in the Snow by Wigan’s Ovation and Footsee by Wigan’s Chosen Few, but that’s it; unless you count The Goodies’ Black Pudding Bertha (she’s the queen of Northern Soul) – but I don’t think you can. It’s a musical subculture that is clearly deeply loved, and maybe its general secretiveness is a major part of its appeal. Certainly, the very full audience at the Royal last night was packed with Northern Soul admirers who swung along to the various tracks that are scattered through the show.
It’s a deceptively simple play; three twenty-somethings who all grew up together in Hull find their chosen career paths halted by Covid and end up all working at the same fast food drive-through. Sally and Kyle have been besties since playschool, and Nat joined them not much later. One night, they chanced upon a club – the Beachcomber – Cleethorpes for an all-nighter of Northern Soul music, only £3 to get in, where they were amazed to find they were the youngest people there. In a beautiful realisation of the arrogance of youth, they ask themselves how the heck did all these old people learn these dance routines? Their aim is to take their Northern Soul dance act to the Tower Ballroom Blackpool, but only if Sally thinks they’re good enough; it’s as though she’s her own Craig Revel-Horwood. I had no idea that Northern Soul had its own dance style by the way, apparently a kind of sliding gliding that relies on talc and balance.
At the interval, I was feeling this was a modest, underachieving little play. It has a very in-house feel about it, being the John Godber Company production of a John Godber play, directed by John Godber and with John Godber’s daughter among the cast of three. Rather than using a Paul Mathew style pantechnicon, you can imagine them transporting the set and props from venue to venue using a local man with a van. There was no programme – at least not at last night’s performance – so I can’t name and shame whoever was responsible for the totally inadequate lighting, with members of the cast performing in shadow during some scenes.
I was also underwhelmed by the script which I found repetitive, rather dull and lacking that usual John Godber wit. There should be a legal limit on the number of times the phrase do you want fries with that can be repeated in a play. Yes, we get the drift that it’s designed to show that their jobs were repetitive and dull but is it fair to subject the audience to the same level of repetition with such diligence?!
However, the scene just before the interval started to show some promise. Our trio have discovered the Cleethorpes club and have felt its vigour and emotion coursing through their veins for the first time. And it was also the first time that the characters truly came to life. And after the interval, the drive and power of the play continued to burst through the writing. Despite the rather heavy-handed speech by an old-timer (67 years old) at the club about the tradition, heritage, and true meaning of Northern Soul, you begin to realise that this is a celebration of the purity of one’s art. Sally is caught up in an artistic stasis – she can’t dance to it, she can’t sing along, all she can do is watch in awe at the effect the music has on her and others. She realises this thing is bigger than any of them.
The play also takes on other social issues; not only the devastation caused by Covid, but the general austerity and lack of opportunity in the north that determines one’s complete lifetime. It highlights a problem that’s rarely considered – what happens when a younger person lives with an older person as their carer, and then they die. In an affluent society that means they inherit the property. But in Sally’s world that renders you homeless.
The three likeable young actors are all superb in their roles and work together as a brilliant ensemble. Chloe Mcdonald accurately portrays Nat, that character who is the third member of a group of three, knowing she can never quite achieve the same bond as the other two. Emilio Encinoso-Gil has an excellent sense for the comedy in some of the best lines as wannabe musical theatre performer Kyle, whose lofty ambitions led to two years dressed as a crocodile. But it is Martha Godber’s Sally who is the lynchpin, and through whom we see the progress of the trio; funny, bossy, caring but also at times completely unreasonable, she gives a terrific performance of a very credible and well-rounded personality.
I was at times reminded of the Victoria Wood sketch where Jim Broadbent is the long-suffering playwright who lives and breathes the pain and misery of the north and is motivated to create his epics to reflect the douleur of the dockers, the railway workers and the steel workers – but lives comfortably in Chiswick. I’m not saying Mr Godber is that person, but the play does have a huge I love the north and all its pain atmosphere about it. Its romanticised and sentimental view of the affection for Northern Soul and its roots is both its strength and its weakness. Mrs Chrisparkle thought they missed a trick by not including a whippet. Clearly she has no heart.
The Northampton audience – mainly made up of people of a certain age who could easily have been at that Cleethorpes club – absolutely loved it. If you’re an aficionado of Northern Soul, you will too. As for the rest of us, there is plenty to admire, but also a little to be cynical about.