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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HUSBANDS & SONS
at the National (Dorfman)

TRIPLE PLAY
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  (L to R) Martin Marquez, Anne-Marie Duff and Philip McGinley/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

It’s always good to get a bargain, and the National Theatre is generously offering one in the shape of the trilogy D.H. Lawrence wrote between 1909 and 1913. For the price of a single admission, three plays – The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, A Collier’s Friday Night and The Daughter-in-Law – have been conflated under the umbrella title of Husbands & Sons. It’s the kind of theatrical gimmick you might have expected from Alan Ayckbourn in his prime except that, unlike Ayckbourn, it is coal, on this occasion, rather than laughter, that is being mined.

All three plays are set around a Nottinghamshire colliery in Eastwood, and Lawrence’s basic premise is that trying to make a marriage work is as demanding and as gruelling as digging for the black stuff hundreds of feet underground. Both are hell on earth, with domesticity providing scant comfort after a hard day’s work in brutal conditions. Equally miserable are the wives and mothers, joylessly trapped in unfulfilled lives above ground.

In The Daughter-in-Law, the best and meatiest of the three plays, emotions are ignited when Luther Gascoigne (Joe Armstrong), who seems unable to nurture the expectations of his nagging wife Minnie (Louise Brealey), discovers, within months of his marriage, that a local village lass – for whom he still has feelings – is pregnant with his child. Nor does his domineering widowed mother (Susan Brown) contribute anything positive to the situation. She and her daughter-in-law are forever at loggerheads.

In A Collier’s Friday Night, the collier in question is Walter Lambert (Lloyd Hutchinson), an oafish miner whose lack of breeding is so irksome to his controlling wife Lydia (Julia Ford) that she devotes her smothering attention to her sensitive son Ernest (Johnny Gibbon), who is everything her husband is not. Ernest appears never to have done an honest day’s work in his life, reads French poetry, and is probably the only man in Eastwood interested in reading an obituary of Swinburne. He’s also in thrall to his manipulative mother, who does nothing to hide how much she disapproves of his girlfriend Maggie (Cassie Bradley). In the end, your sympathies are entirely with Walter, the hard-working collier whose self-esteem his family has all but wrecked.

Nor, in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, is there much love lost between Lizzie Holroyd (Anne-Marie Duff) and her boorish, perpetually inebriated spouse Charles (Martin Marquez). Her only comforts are their young son Jack and, as the play progresses, a sympathetic and personable electrician (Philip McGinley) who is trying to persuade her to run away with him. The play climaxes in an inevitable pit disaster that claims Charles’ life.

In adapting Lawrence’s gloom-strewn trilogy of unhappy families into a single exploration of life (and death) in a typical mining village, Ben Power tries, whenever possible, to provide a binding narrative link to the evening. But only occasionally do the three plays comfortably interlock. And although it takes a bit of time to get your head around the separate stories being told and to concentrate on what is being said and done in each, the performances are so strong you soon get to know each character quite intimately.

In what is basically an ensemble cast, there is particularly fine work from Duff as a woman torn between duty to her family and the love of another man, Brown as the powerful matriarch Mrs. Gascoigne, Armstrong as her basically decent but conflicted son Luther, Brealey as her determined daughter-in-law, Ford as the possessive Lydia Lambert, and Gibbon as the son Lydia dominates.


In juggling so many characters at the same time, finding the right pace and rhythm, and applying just the necessary amount of connective tissue to keep it all together, director Marianne Elliot has done a tremendous job. I just wish she had dispensed with having her cast mime putting on or taking off various garments as they enter and exit their respective houses. Lawrence was nothing if not a realist, and as all the furniture and utensils in Bunny Christie's evocative trio of houses is nothing if not realistic, mime is definitely an intrusion. That said, in killing three birds with one stone, Husbands & Sons offers great value for money.

 


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