Happy Jack at the Barn shows 'the power of theatre to both move and amuse'

Mary Powell as Liz and Simon Parr as Jack in Happy Jack at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Mary Powell as Liz and Simon Parr as Jack in Happy Jack at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Tim Hardy reviews Happy Jack by John Godber at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Simon Parr as Jack and Mary Powell as Liz in Happy Jack at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Simon Parr as Jack and Mary Powell as Liz in Happy Jack at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Happy Jack, playing at the Barn Theatre until October 2, is a witty, warm-hearted and occasionally disturbing look at a married life packed full of affection, happy memories and fierce arguments.

Let’s get this out of the way early doors. Happy Jack’s titular character is not a particularly jolly chap. He’s selfish, obstinate and prone to violent bouts of temper.

That said, he’s also funny, a domestic poet and, in his own peculiar way, loving. He’s the best kind of stage character; fully-formed and eminently human, earning your affection one sentence before utterly repelling the next. 

Happy Jack is John Goober’s attempt to capture the lives of his grandfather, Jack, and grandmother, Liz.

Jack (Simon Parr) spent his entire working life down a coal pit in Yorkshire, destroying his physical health in the process.

Liz (Mary Powell), ever the faithful wife, raised their two children and got dinner on the table, repressing any of her own ambitions.

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The play chronicles their lives from first meeting to death, but in reverse order.

We meet Jack and Liz as physically diminished retirees, before gradually moving backwards through their time together.

These vignettes of married life capture everything from the relatably mundane – think arguments over fences being taken down – to the gloriously sweet, such as drunken participation in a Mr and Mrs Competition on holiday in Blackpool.

The action on stage actually begins 10 minutes before the official start time, with two battle-hardened stagehands walking on to dress the set to resemble a mid-century front room.

This is, I’m told by somebody far more intelligent and better read than I am, a Brechtian technique, intended to remind the audience that they are watching a fictional piece rather than reality.

It prepares the audience well for the subsequent continual breaking of the fourth wall, with each vignette of Jack and Liz introduced and contextualised to the audience by the two actors on stage.

What could have felt jarring and surprising instead feels natural. A clever move from director Cliff Francis.

The interplay between Parr and Powell, the only two actors in the play, was always going to be pivotal in determining whether this staging of Happy Jack could be deemed a success.

Thankfully, they succeed at nigh on every juncture, bringing Jack and Liz to life as the quintessential long-suffering but loving couple.

They are particularly convincing in the play’s early stages, trading loving insults in the utterly brutal manner that only an old married couple could.

The two actors also ably – and often amusingly – fill in with a variety of other roles.

Powell plays a 1920s barman with brilliant confidence, while Parr is almost unnervingly convincing as a 1960s Welsh light entertainment compère. His long-hidden true calling may, I fear, have finally revealed itself.

The pacing of the play is very well-managed. Happy Jack’s vignette form could have easily led to a rather laborious, fragmented feel.

This is emphatically avoided, in no small part due to the snappy speed of the dialogue between the two actors.

A final special mention must go to the music used over the course of the play, a glorious mix of 1940s and 1950s crooners and pop. A link to a Spotify playlist certainly wouldn’t go amiss. 

Happy Jack – offering that perfect blend of comedy and drama – reminded this oft-wearied reviewer of the power of theatre to both move and amuse.

I really, really recommend you catch this one while you still can.

Happy Jack can be seen at the Barn Theatre until Saturday, October 2, 2021. Visit www.barntheatre.co.uk to book tickets.

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