Typical! You wait ages for a D.H. Lawrence play, then three come along at once.
Husbands & Sons, currently showing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, is a rather clever conflation of three of his plays, all written at around the same time and, as adapter Ben Power deftly demonstrates, sharing many of the same concerns and attitudes.
The Daughter-In-Law is perhaps the best known strand, having been performed a few years ago at the city’s Library Theatre and also, more recently, at the Young Vic, with, coincidentally, Anne-Marie Duff taking the role assigned here to Louise Brealey. Power has also incorporated into this production the perhaps less-celebrated The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd and A Collier’s Friday Night.
Stockport-born director Marianne Elliott started her career at the Exchange, directing such celebrated productions as Port, Les Blancs and Poor Superman (“I was a little girl then!” she said to me during the interval) before moving on to such large-scale successes as War Horse and The Curious Incident Of the Dog In The Night-time. Describing the early days of this production, she remembers a day in the National Theatre Studio where they read each of these Lawrence plays one after the other.
“Although the three plays have nothing in common apart from being set in the same mining village,” she recalls, “we saw parallels that in themselves spoke volumes, such as the connections between the mothers and the sons, the men feeling like fish out of water in their own homes, the sense of pride, the effect of drink, the poetic sides to all the souls. A recurring theme was the masculinity and virility of the men, who behave instinctively and improvise their way through the kitchens, while the women are quite articulate, intelligent, aspirational and fastidious. These men come in and throw their dirt all over the women’s white tablecloths and swept floors. We became aware that Lawrence’s world of Eastwood was scattered with religion, which the older characters adhered to. And it alluded to the irreverence of the youth, all longing to break out.
“His perspective became an epic statement of this world,” she believes, “not just one protagonist’s experience but obviously something universal. He’s drawing on his own life and those around him as he grew up but he also seems to be saying that what he saw in his childhood is not just particular to him.”
Strikingly designed by Bunny Christie and tellingly-lit by Lucy Carter, the family strife of the Gascoignes, Holroyds and Lamberts is acted out separately over three carefully-delineated and neatly-labelled terraced cottages marked out on the stage floor, rather like a board game. The action switching back and forth between the households proved considerably less confusing than you might reasonably fear, at least once you’d got the hang of it. Less successful, or at least not to my taste at all and continuously distracting, was the way this design also lent itself to an awful lot of putting on, or off, of invisible coats and hats as characters arrived or left dwellings as well as a lot of that ‘look at me, aren’t I acting!’ stuff as invisible doors were opened, closed, or otherwise interacted with, accompanied by impressively synchronised sound effects.
But there was plenty else to admire in this handsome production, including several moments when the action between households brilliantly interlocked to underline a sense of a community whose inhabitants lived metaphorically on top of each other as well as literally on top of the coalmine which dominated their lives.
It’s a play told very much from the women’s perspective, so it’s fortunate that the female leads are so impressive.
Anne-Marie Duff, a key player in those initial readings according to Elliott, plays long-suffering Lizzie Holroyd, obviously battered by Charles (Martin Marquez), her drunken lout of a miner husband, but offered some chance of a new life by Blackmore, an electrician (Philip McGinley) in the strand based on The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. Meanwhile, over in the Gascoigne (The Daughter-in-Law) cottage, Minnie Gascoigne (Louise Brealey) is the headstrong new wife of Luther (Joe Armstrong) in a household previously very much dominated by the widowed mother (Susan Brown) of Luther and his younger brother Joe (Matthew Barker). Coincidentally, Brealey and Armstrong are nominated as Best Visiting Actor and Actress in this month’s Manchester Theatre Awards for their last performance opposite each other in Constellations.
Across the narrow pathway at The Lamberts (as in A Collier’s Friday Night), Lydia Lambert (Julia Ford) has to contend with a brutalised, terrifying miner husband Walter (Lloyd Hutchinson), a flibbertigibbet of a daughter Nellie (Tala Gouvela) and a visiting son Ernest (Johnny Gibbon), much loved but, since his sojourn at university, rather more interested in Maggie Pearson (Cassie Bradley) than anything his mother might have to offer.
Inevitably, it’s a lengthy production but it’s so immaculately constructed and played that that hardly matters, given that it’s also so rewarding.
By Kevin Bourke
Husbands & Sons is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until March 19, 2016. For more information, click here.