Husbands and Sons, dir. Marianne Elliott, The Royal Exchange, 23 February 2016

Tha knows, doesn’t tha? What to expect from Derek Herbert Lawrence. Tha knows. Cloth caps. Mining towns. Put upon lasses with frownin, frowzy faces. Aye, tha knows. Tha knows what life is like on’t hard edge. Tha knows what it’s like, doesn’t tha? Tha’s not one of those who can’t see the mickling for the muckling. Tha knows.

If tha’s ever ‘ad the good fortune to spy that old Coen Brothers picture, Barton Fink, down the Cinematograph, and heard John Turturro’s character talkin’ about the plays what he wanted to write, about the working man, stories what were true, then tha already has an idea of what thee might spect to find in Ben Power’s adaptation of three of that young Herbert lad’s works. Power has tekken ‘The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd’ – a play, it should be said, whose title goes some way to acting as alternative to the words SPOILER ALERT – ‘A Collier’s Friday Night’ and ‘The Daughter-in-Law’ and mashed them all up together like the kind of stew you’d expect a family to make from whatever was left in the fridge on the night before pay day.

So we have three stories: first, the story of Mrs Holroyd and her abusive, alcoholic husband, and the young electrician who is amorously inclined her way. Second is the story of the Lamberts: which is primarily the story of an abusive father, Walter (a mining man who doesn’t have a delicate bone in his body), his put-upon wife, Lydia, and the hopes she carries for her son, Ernest, back from university for a flying visit and a secret tryst with Maggie Pearson, a girl he’s enamoured with and who his mother doesn’t have any time for. Third, is the story of the Gascoignes: Luther, recently married to Minnie; his mother, Mrs Gascoigne, who doesn’t approve of his son’s choice; Joe, his brother – and Mrs Purdy, from down the lane, whose daughter Luther apparently impregnated before he took a bride.

Ah, tha might say, suddenly reviving the accent we appeared to drop in the last paragraph. That sounds like a grand evening’s entertainment. And tha would, for the most part, be right. There’s a lot to like here. The most beguiling element is the space that staging three plays simultaneously affords to his characters. The stage set, when viewed from above, is essentially three homes laid out in a plan (you can see the words PARLOUR, LIVING ROOM etc marked out on the floor), and the characters move, largely in mime, between the internal and the external world. (Audience members talking in the interval, largely disagreed about whether this worked or didn’t work: actors miming the opening and closing of doors and the putting on and taking off of coats and hats. The jury is out on its success but it certainly acts as a sort of Brechtian distancing device during the action of the play.)

With each play effectively occurring in a neighbouring house, with lines of dialogue from each serving to turn up or turn down the sound on a competing narrative – and raised voices frequently silencing other exchanges (characters stopping and looking in the direction of the noise) – it works to establish the trio of stories as a singular narrative, and the whole as a play in its own right, as Husbands and Sons rather than ‘The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd’, ‘A Collier’s Friday Night’ and ‘The Daughter-in-Law’. Crucially, however, what this device allows is space. When Mrs Holroyd collapses in her chair and the young electrician gently and wordlessly nurses her foot, the tender scene can progress in almost real time, in a genuinely mesmerising way, as other characters return to the fore. Occasionally, songs and prayers are taken up by more than one character, a sound carrying on the air, a twin yearning joined to considerable effect. The silence that can exist of an evening between a man and his wife, even an unhappily married man and his equally unhappy wife, can play out, as I’m sure it does across the land. Parts of Husbands and Sons – which could very easily run like a bad episode of Brass – feel very true and very real.

A lot of the truth of the piece, the realisation of the truth of the words on the page, can be laid at the door of Anne-Marie Duff. Husbands and Sons has a vast cast and there are no weak links, but Duff has a quiet beauty, elegance, and a restrained sadness that continually draws the eye. Her role could easily be derailed by histrionics and yet it never is (in point of fact, the one point where she is mourning the eventual death of her husband is the most moving scene in the entire play). The love she shows her son, her husband and her almost-but-not-quite would-be lover is sincere, complex, and captivating. I’d go as far to say it’s the best performance I’ve seen at the Royal Exchange in recent years (better than Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, Maxine Peake’s Skriker and Maxine Peake’s Miss Julie, which is saying something). Husbands and Sons could make an Anne-Marie Duff fanboy of me.

But we said there are no weak links: Louise Brealey’s Minnie could easily be an unsympathetic character but Brealey works to make us understand her and again, her quiet resolve arrests the eye. Similarly Julia Ford’s Lydia, wife to a terrible brute of a man, mother to a son whose love is slipping away from her, has a dignity and acceptance (Husbands and Sons could just as easily have been called Wives). Among the men, Joe Armstrong and Matthew Barker, as brothers Luther and Joe respectively, Philip McGinley as electrician Blackmore and Lloyd Hutchinson as Walter Lambert all provide solid support. The only genuine lack in the play as it currently stands is that two of the stories don’t seem to have a natural climax and instead fall into the slipstream of ‘The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd’, and a strange and obscure cataclysm that seems to suggest the future holds nothing but worse for these people (which we suppose is true).

But the gentle falling off at the end of the play does nothing to diminish what is for the most part three hours of completely immersive theatre. This is the Royal Exchange doing what the Royal Exchange does best: excavating, reviving and refreshing what could well have been lost theatre in a way that may well get certain members of its audience to check out what else this DH Lawrence fella has done. (We recommend you start with Sons and Lovers.)
Peter Wild

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