Husbands and Sons

The latest production from the Royal Exchange, Husbands and Sons is an amalgam of three of DH Lawrence’s plays, set in an East Midlands mining community around 1900 – The Daughter-in-Law, A Collier’s Friday Night and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd.

Because the play has been formed by three overlapping stories, there is no strong plot arc to draw the whole play together.  Instead, the element of place is the focus, both in location and time.  So the stage is full (so full that the first couple of rows have been taken out) of evocative domestic furniture from the period – fires, cookers, hot water kettles, tables, chairs.  There is coal, there is fire and there is the dirt of the miners, and all three play a significant part in this play.  Three houses are clearly delineated, each the setting for one of the threads, but carefully intertwined with thoughtful direction.   The play is not only defined by physical place, but also the societal norms of the location and the time.   For a play titled Husbands and Sons, this is ultimately a play about the women in a mining community where a man’s main role is to work and earn money; those women who have to take complex decisions in their lives, that this society demands, but with which they are not necessarily comfortable. Marianne Elliott, Director, says  ‘This is a story about the uncomplicated identity of men clashing with the trapped, frustrated and aspiring souls of these women’.

Husbands Sons 2 Photo by Manuel HarlanIt’s a long play – three hours including the interval.  The opening section takes a long time to set up, and the first half hour is hard work.  But it is worth the investment to buy into the characters, all of whom are well drawn and convincingly portrayed.  The middle section is very strong.  Anne-Marie Duff excels as Lizzie Holroyd when her character comes to the fore half way through, caught between men who can offer her a different life.  But the outstanding performance in this play is from Louise Brealey, the strong minded Minnie Gascoigne who has to live with her husband’s past, and his ever-present mother.  Louise keeps everything just under the surface; the real power of this play lies in the portrayal of those things that are not said.

The play tails off towards the end, and some of the resolutions are perhaps historically accurate but not sufficiently relevant to a modern audience.  The inevitable question of ‘what is it all for?’ rings slightly hollow.  So, beautifully acted with a very strong evocation of the people, place and time in which it is set, but as a drama it doesn’t quite fit together.

Husbands and Sons plays at the Royal Exchange from 19 Feb – 19 March 2016, having previously been performed at the National Theatre.

All photos Manuel Harlan/Royal Exchange

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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