THE EMPTY NESTER’S CLUB at ERT, Beverley. 14/6/16
A brand new play from acclaimed playwright John Godber, The Empty Nester’s Club is a fantastic ninety-minute production focusing on how an only child’s departure for university affects the dynamic of her doting parents. With the story told by her mum (played by Godber’s wife, Jane Thornton), on the premise that she’s running a club for fellow parents who are struggling to adapt to “Empty Nest” syndrome, the play is set in a village hall beset by bunting. Cleverly set ninety minutes before she is due to present her “story” to the club, the audience bears witness to Mum’s emotional practice run-through of what she’s going to say as she reflects on the journey leading up to their daughter’s departure, with their daughter played by Godber’s own daughter, Martha.
Featuring contributions from Dad (the ever-wonderful Robert Angell) in “flashback mode,” the story gets to grips with all the ups and downs of the emotional fallout, from the parents’ joy at discovering their daughter’s ability to qualify for a university place, to their fear of ‘losing her,’ their dread of not having her around for the first time in eighteen years. In that respect, it’s a story of loss, grief and adaptation, as Mum and Dad — suddenly ‘on their own again’ — struggle to come to terms with effectively being daughter-less. In struggling to accept the absence of their daughter, Mum and Dad both throw themselves into new hobbies and groups in a bid to distract themselves, keeping themselves busy purely for the sake of doing so, unable to accept that their girl has finally flown the nest, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it. As happy as they are for her, they still wish that she was at home, Dad forever concerned that she’s going come to harm down in London, hence his obsession with staying up late, waiting on text messages from her to assure him that she’s okay, that there’s no need for them to worry.
Ironically, such a significant life-event should bring Mum and Dad closer together. Instead, it drives them apart, wedging distance between them, both of them going out of their way to spend less and less time with one another, Dad pouring more and more time and energy into cycling and Kung-Fu, while Mum focuses on her new club, hoping to meet other mums and dads ready and willing to share their stories.
Superbly acted by all concerned, The Empty Nester’s Club is undeniably well-structured, the “one set fits all scenarios” approach working perfectly. With subtle lighting changes punctuating the changes between Past and Present, Godber’s trademark northern wit peppers almost every line of speech, Angell executing many of the play’s funniest lines, his droll demeanour making the most of Godber’s dry humour. As well as being exceptionally funny, The Empty Nester’s Club triumphs in being extraordinarily moving, with all parents surely able to sympathise with Mum and Dad, not least when it seems that their daughter isn’t in any way bothered about moving away, acting as though she’s not missing Mum and Dad one iota.
Wonderfully scripted throughout, The Empty Nester’s Club is a joy to watch, with Mum, Dad and Daughter all played convincingly, the play possessing a realistic, reassuring twist. All things considered, it’s another must-see masterpiece from the undisputed King of British Playwrights.