It’s late winter in a terraced house in Hull and its inhabitants can’t afford to turn the heating on. Three generations are arguing about the recent failures of Labour government and the possibility of a new Tory Prime Minister. So far the scene is familiar but this isn’t 2008 – it’s 1978, ‘The Winter of Discontent’ and a play about power struggles, masculinity and lorries.
James Graham’s latest work brings us Dad, a retired long distance lorry driver who spends his time pontificating about the importance of socialist values, the days when Labour where Labour and finally paying off the instalments (’42 to go’) on his beloved truck Aggie.
Middle-aged Jim, his son, is also a lorry driver and married to Brenda, an NHS nurse, with a sixteen-year-old son Mark who is studying Shakespeare and loves David Bowie. Val, Jim’s ‘Mam’, is battling the late stages of dementia and sits on the sofa in a catatonic state.
In Alex Marker’s beautifully recreated 1978 sitting room, complete with three bar fire, ridiculous wallpaper and dark green velvet sofa, the plot revolves around the family’s grim winter. Mam (Colette Kelly) is in slow decline but despite this Terry (William Maxwell) remains cheerful as he fights the reality of her illness.
Outside Callaghan’s Britain is grinding to a halt in the biggest general strike for over 50 years. Through the course of the action there is talk of rubbish untouched for weeks and no hot water to clean up Mam’s incontinence. More than once the stage falls into darkness due to power cuts and the grim reality of strike means that Val has to be brought home from the nursing home because Jim and Brenda haven’t been paid for three weeks.
On top of these domestic realities Graham alludes to the similarities between 2008 and 1978 with some clumsy references to people having bad memories and disquiet caused by having a leader we never voted for. However the thrust of Kate Wasserberg’s production is the family scene, which progresses fairly predictably to an inevitable conclusion.
Along the way we have father, son and grandson jostling to prove their masculinity and be the man of the house. We also touch on the sadness of passing youth, old socialism vs new and the frustration of Kazia Pelka’s Brenda at the inability of a strong but silent Jim (played by a brooding Barry Aird) to talk about anything that matters.
At times the writing seems as eager to please as Mark, sparkily played by Steven Webb, who is eager to show off his Shakespeare and historical knowledge to his audience. However the characters are well drawn, the dialogue deft in places and all four actors shine in their roles. The story may be nothing new but thanks in part to Kate Wasserberg’s direction and strong performances from the cast, it’s both funny and very moving in parts. The chemistry is fantastic and the everyday problems and sad realities of family life are brought to life convincingly.