On first examination, Perfect Pitch seems closely akin to those almost antique plays for which John Godber is best known – Bouncers, Teechers, anything (it seemed at the time) ending in -ers. Take a simple, small-cast situation – in this case, two couples on neighbouring pitches on a Scarborough caravan site – set the tensions and interplays in motion in standard comedy fashion, and wait for the various moments of truth to generate themselves midway through the second half.
In fact, Perfect Pitch is nothing of the sort. Godber knows his structural and conventional onions – as befits the third most performed playwright in Britain – but, like Alan Ayckbourn (for whose theatre this play is a commission), he now employs situations like this as a jumping-off point, gently but palpably pushing the envelope of what a mainstream audience expects. For instance, the principals in this play are from the modern classless class, a headmaster who has taken early retirement for nervous reasons and his jogging, Gilbert and Sullivan-singing wife; the prolier Grant and Steph (she "likes doing the clubs", he – twenty or so years older than her – "dun't like leaving the dogs" that he breeds... bull terriers, naturally) are characterised by loud sexual athleticism as much as disagreeable coarseness; that bruise which Steph acquires seems really to be an accident after all... and so on. The most telling moment comes during the second-act drunken-barbecue scene, traditionally the point at which dormant furies would be expected to flare up. At one point the upwardly mobile Yvonne accidentally calls Grant "the Grunt" to his face. This would normally be a cue for a hackneyed explosion of honesty on the part of all four; here, menace hangs in the air for a minute or two, then the conversation moves on – awkwardnesses ebb and flow in natural rather than contrived "dramatic" patterns.
These differences are so subtle that one suspects they might pass many by on the page – it would sadden but not surprise me to see subsequent productions of this play which completely miss the point. Here, though, Godber the playwright is excellently served by Godber the director, who allows instants of nuance and significance to come and go, accumulating slowly in effect rather than being sledgehammered home. His cast do well by him (although James Hornsby as ex-teacher Ron could perhaps curb his fondness for the patented Leonard Rossiter emphatic nod), but the unfussy, in some ways almost unnoticeable success of Perfect Pitch is due primarily to Godber's insights and skills as a director even more than as a writer. Filing out of the theatre, a girl behind me remarked to her companion, "People do behave just like that, don't they?" Yes, they do.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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