The observation that any production of Bouncers is in danger of performing an artefact is well-rehearsed. In 1987, John Godber was already aware that his play was aging, and stressed the importance that companies approaching the play should “keep it alive for today”. It is not a play about going out in the eighties; it is a play about going out.
Bridging a three decade chasm in clubbing culture in this way is not an easy undertaking, and the performance staged by Poor Players Productions at the Burton Taylor studio this week visibly strained under the thirty year weight.
The play begins promisingly, with the four performers at their most dynamic in the first ten minutes, palpably enthusiastic, diving in and out of characters with a noticeable absence of assistance from costumes or lighting changes. The occasional lampshading is also refreshing; the first mention of “bouncers” is met with a collective shout of “eponymous!”, and the actors are eager to expose the pretence of the playworld, drawing awkward attention to important speeches and their sudden (sometimes confusing) changes in character.
The versatility of the cast, however, was limited, and the play quickly began to sag with the number of increasing exhausted caricatures. Chris Connell and Tommy Jolowicz in particular had difficulty adapting their physicality from one role to the next; and when we met the bouncers themselves, crossed arms and gruff voices did not suffice to distinguish them as authentic characters. Indeed, their scenes were among the weakest; the rapid pace required to maintain their Beckettian smalltalk was consistently lacking, and when a lengthy speech by Lucky Eric, the wise old owl of the foursome, offered an opportunity for pathos, it was delivered in an unpersuasive monotone.
Admittedly, Godber’s text suffers from the same trait as Eric’s speeches; the night in Bouncers is doomed from the start, and as such there is little dramatic tension to bear a company through the long hour of the play. Directors James Watt and Adam Leonard do little to remedy this, though, so that any small revelations (such as the reason for Eric’s nickname) are reduced to inconsequential throwaway remarks. Without a tangible narrative, Bouncers often feels more like a themed sketch show than a story about a sober occupation. The decision to leave the stage so conspicuously bare only adds to this effect, and leaves the actors with a difficult job of holding their audience’s attention unaided, in which they do not always succeed.
The Poor Players’ production is an odd mix of nostalgia — maintaining references to ‘blue videos’ and ‘discotheques’ — and up-to-date commentary (allusions to Thatcher are abandoned, and Primark is substituted for C&A). What results is a play that is occasionally funny, but ultimately unconvincing as a satire of nightlife, whether in the eighties or present-day.