Phil, Pete and Jan didn't think butter woud melt in Abi's mouth. They were wrong…

Culture clash tale won't go down as a Godber great

Astute observations, a keen ear for dialogue and a generous helping of food for thought – but Poles Apart is hampered by a plot which at times moves as slowly as its slacking scaffolders

One of the defining abilities of John Godber as a playwright is his talent for capturing dialogue, especially the ebb and flow of working class banter: we've seen it between bouncers, spouses, rugby league players, pit village neighbours and many more over the years.

His latest play, Poles Apart, which premiered at the Theatre Royal Wakefield from 10 to 19 September, is another impressive example of his skill in that respect – in fact almost the whole first half of this 'thesps versus plebs' culture clash tale is taken up by it.

The trouble is, that's more-or-less all the first 50 minutes of Poles Apart achieves.

Phil, Fat Pete and Polish Jan are three scaffolders fixing the roof of a fictional Theatre Royal and, in the process, getting in the way and up the noses of theatre manager Grahame and leading lady Abi.

That the scaffolders reckon nothing to theatre – "b****cks" is Phil's repeated verdict on the idea of “pretending to be somebody you're not” – and that the thespians have a similarly low opinion of the workmen is comprehensively established within the first 15 minutes.

There then follows half an hour or so when those positions are reinforced and a little more is revealed of the various characters (it's hinted that Grahame is gay and that Jan is working illegally) but the plot hardly moves any more than the scaffolding tower planted firmly in the middle of the stage.

To be fair, during that period there are some cracking comedy lines, earthy epithets and typically sharp human observations – but when at one point Phil exhorts his larking-about workmates to "get on with it", it's hard not to think "if only…".

The pace is stepped up in the second half as events outside the 'other' Theatre Royal conspire to trap both parties along with their resentments and prejudices, until the powder keg eventually explodes in a furious argument during which which Graham appears to suffer a heart attack and Abi, previously intimidated by the scaffolders' sexist comments, comes close to launching a physical attack on Pete.

Keith Hukin puts in a heavyweight shift as Phil, with his relentless tirade of philistine opinions. The droll Pete (Adrian Hood) and enthusiastic Jan (Frazer Hammill) are, on their own, a little more open-minded but quickly fall in behind their boss when it becomes an us-and-them situation.

Rob Hudson impressively portrays the increasingly irritated Grahame, climaxing in his venomous – and almost fatal – denouncement of the workmen (nevertheless tinged with sadness over his failure to stimulate working class interest in the theatre), while Ruby Thompson's portrayal of Abi likewise moves astutely from initial reticence to her passionate final put-downs.

There's much to admire in the interplay between the characters; the portrayal of closed minds on both sides of the divide implicit in the play's title; and, as always with John Godber, no shortage of cultural and social issues given an airing (and as Upton miner's son-turned-respected playwright, few people are better placed to examine them).

One of Godber's objectives for this play was to consider whether theatre has anything to say to the working man. The downbeat verdict would seem to be "no" – but is it also criticising the Phils of this world for refusing to listen in the first place?

Plenty of food for thought, then – but, nevertheless, Poles Apart is unlikely to become one of his enduring works.

WfL rating: 3/5

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