Review: The Debt Collectors – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

There are certain constants in theatre. Latecomers will always have tickets in the middle of a row, the person behind you will always have the noisiest of sweets to unwrap, and a glance at the cast biographies in the programme will reveal several ex-cast members from The Bill.

Now that esteemed TV drama has come to an end, have you ever wondered what all those actors are now doing when not on stage?
John Godber’s latest comedy, The Debt Collectors, looks at two out-of-work actors – one a former star of The Bill – who resort to becoming door knockers for a backstreet debt collection agency.

It’s a topical subject and one that offers much potential for a wry look at both the credit crunch and also the fragility of the acting industry. Sadly Godber’s script is one of his weakest and can’t decide on what it is – political commentary or slapstick farce.

This two-hander is inherently theatrical; a set of discarded scenery flats and props providing a playground for the actors and the structure of a play within a play adds to the theatricality, though ultimately it’s as flat as the stacked up scenery.

Loz is, at least it seems, the more stable of the two new collectors, a soft heart not really cut out for the hard-nosed world of money collection. His oppo, Spud, is more hot-headed, still living on his past glories from The Bill and waiting for that call that will whisk him away to new stardom.

It all sounds promising and the trademark Godber machine-gun-fire dialogue initially sounds promising but it’s all paper thin, the lines could easily belong in his earlier work, Bouncers. While Bouncers successfully mixed the comedy with a darker edge, here the two sides are less successfully married. Scenes that shed light on the human impact of debt and the pressure of collectors are thrown away in favour of quick laughs and, by the time lights come down on Act One, it is difficult to see where the plot can head.

In fairness, the second half is slightly more accomplished, finally revealing a glimpse of what drives these two actors but it is all too little, too late and, ultimately, the dramatic climax, though impressively performed, makes for an unbalanced evening.

Rob Hudson and William Ilkley do try their best with the material and there is some nice chemistry between the two but the characters are drafted as little more than stereotypes rather than fully-rounded characters.

Over the years John Godber has created some of really inventive comedies that reflect our current times; sadly, this debut of his own producing company is likely to leave audiences feeling short-changed.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

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