When John Godber’s original two-man version of Bouncers first appeared in 1977 at the Edinburgh Fringe, its debut performance was attended by precisely two: a drunk and a critic. The drunk clambered on stage and began chatting to the actors and the critic left halfway through – hardly encouraging signs.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Bouncers has established itself as one of the nation’s favourite plays. In 1993, Godber was ranked third behind Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn as the third most-performed playwright in the country and the National recently included Bouncers in its ‘100 plays of the 20th Century’ list.
Now, student-run Poor Player Productions is staging Godber’s ‘modern classic’ at the BT Studio in 3rd Week. Bouncers tells the story of a typical night in a typical 80s nightclub. A four-hander in which the actors inhabit various roles – from mincing, dolled-up girls to beer-soaked, sex-mad ‘lads’ – whilst always returning to the four misogynistic, pugnacious doormen of the title (Les, Ralph, Judd, and Lucky Eric), it promises to be an engaging, energetic production.
The well-crafted vulgarity of Godber’s script evokes that recognisable stench of beer, piss, sweat and deodorant. There is another element added to this stifling concoction, however: an uncomfortable pathos that is piercingly profound.
There is humour aplenty, make no mistake, but as Godber himself admitted, ‘the humour is human and tinged with sadness’. The exaggerated, almost parodic behaviour of the characters is undeniably hilarious at times, but the darker, more thought-provoking underbelly of the stereotypes is ever present: the casual sexism, the blatant homophobia, the deep-seated bitterness.
This pathos is easily observed when the four bouncers, played by Chris Connell, Yaroslav Walker, Michael Comba and Tommy Jolowicz, face the audience and recite a forceful, pulsing quasi-paean to the world of the nightclub:
“Come to the place where the beat pulsates. In the heat of the night, the walls gyrate. In the bowels of hell, the scent is strong. There’s sex in the air and the hunt is on. And the children of England sing their song.”
All four rehearse this section with laudable slickness, one taking over the lines from another with barely a pause. The effect is undeniably powerful.
Godber’s stage directions emphasise that each character should be larger-than-life: ‘ordinary mannerisms and gestures are grotesquely exaggerated’. The combined impact of the performers’ smooth approach and appropriate exuberance is simultaneously absorbing and entertaining, testament to the vision co-directors Adam Leonard and James Watt. Should this polished approach be translated to the performance as a whole, the production will be memorable to say the least.
This is where the difficulty will lie, in sustaining this pace and slickness throughout. Realism imbues the dialogue, but not the presentation. The play flows from one scene to the next without any break and character changes are immediate and absolute. As Godber wrote, ‘they [the actors] simply have physical precision, energy, muscular control, and they have the audience’s imagination: they are naked save for their skills as performers.’ An intimidating task but one this cast seems entirely capable of succeeding in.