Royal Exchange, Manchester
Welcome to the world of DH Lawrence – a world of coal and sweat, where every husband is a drunken, boorish tyrant, where every wife is a much put-upon angel, and where every mother secretly harbours an unhealthy regard for her own son.
Husbands and Sons is a curious concoction, a mingling of three early plays by Lawrence – The Daughter-In-Law, A Collier’s Night Out and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd – all of which take place in the same village, which has allowed adapter Ben Power to overlay them, so that one piece of action appears to comment on the next. The protagonists are onstage most of the time, while the script cuts nimbly back and forth between the three households involved – the Lamberts, the Gascoignes and the Holroyds. At first, this technique is disorienting; it takes a while to settle into the rhythm, but eventually you do and things pick up.
The Exchange is famous for its sets and this one is remarkable in its ingenuity. The three households are delineated by ranks of cast iron cooking ranges, sculleries and dining tables, all balanced precariously on top of the colliery, represented by heaps of coal and a grilled floor, lit from below. It looks fantastic.
But there seems to be a lack of consistency in the style. Why, for instance, go to the trouble of creating plumbed-in taps that spout real water and cooking ranges that belch real flame, and then oblige the actors to perform a mime every time they enter a house: opening and closing invisible doors, removing and hanging up imaginary coats and hats? It just looks odd amidst all the naturalistic clutter. Another puzzling detail – two bread tins, complete with knives, are used to prise out… fresh air. In her programme notes, director Marianne Elliott claims that she wanted the audience to ‘concentrate on the people and not get bogged down in the detail of the bread or the stew or sweeping the floor,’ but the absence of these things made no sense when so many other fripperies were included. If we’re meant to concentrate on the actors, why surround them with so much paraphernalia? Or, if this level of detail is required, why not see it through consistently?
There’s no doubting the quality of the performances here. Anne Marie Duff, making her debut at the Exchange, has little to do in the first half, but really comes into her own in the second as the tragic Lizzie Holdroyd, obliged to deal with the sudden death of her boorish husband, Charles (Martin Marquez), killed in a colliery accident. Meanwhile, Lydia Lambert (Julia Ford) is trying not to feel jealous of her son’s new flame and over at the Gascoigne house, Luther (Joe Armstong) has been unfaithful to his wife, Minnie (Louise Brealy), and has got one of the neighbours in the family way. Reparation must be made, it seems but what does Minnie have to say about it?
What you feel about this production will probably depend upon how you regard the writing of D H Lawrence. There are many who think of him as a genius, a man before his time. Others simply see him as a sex-obsessed neurotic with a large chip on his shoulder. Husbands and Sons is an interesting piece that takes time to build in intensity, but we feel it is somewhat compromised by unnecessary complications, that have nothing to do with the performances or, indeed, the script.
Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield