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Husbands and Sons, Royal Exchange, Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Iím a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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Home fires
Thanks to Monty Python sketches et al, plays about the tribulations of mining communities can seem like something of a cliche these days. But in the Royal Exchanges new production, the drama has more than the ring of truth to it, given its author's upbringing.

Written by D.H. Lawrence, Husbands & Sons is a co-production with the National Theatre, where it opened in October. The evening consists of three plays: The Daughter-in-law, A Collier's Friday Night and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd. The plays, which Lawrence never saw on stage, are all set in the village of Eastwood on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, where he was born in 1885.

The set features the households of each of the three families featured. The names of each family and the rooms they inhabit are labelled on the stage floor, in a style reminiscent of the 2003 film Dogville, directed by Lars von Trier, in which the stage-like set is not hidden from the audience.

Royal Exchange Husbands & Sons
Photo by Manuel Harlan.

In the adaptation by Ben Power, deputy artistic director of the National Theatre, the three dramas are played simultaneously. The effect is something like a soap opera or TV drama, where attention alternates between each family.

In the Holroyd and Lambert households, the wives have limited options when it comes to putting up with the behaviour of their menfolk, who offset the drudgery and danger of their working lives by indulging their mood swings and drinking away a large share of their earnings. The Lambert's student-son, Ernest (nicely played by Johnny Gibbon), draws perhaps most directly on Lawrence's own story and escape route from a life in the pit.

Royal Exchange Husbands & Sons
Johnny Gibbon as Ernest Lambert. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

In the Gascoigne family, the wife, Minnie (Louise Brealey), has some financial means of her own and teases and berates her husband seemingly with less fear than the other wives. She asks: "How can a woman have a husband when all the men belong to their mothers?"

The Gascoigne's tempestuous relationship is, for me, the most dynamic of the evening and is augmented by strong interplay between Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong. It's a bit like a version of the play and film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, set in a pit village.

The dialogue is infused with the dialect that Lawrence must have absorbed from his earliest years. It's a tricky accent for non-natives to master and some of the actors are more successful at sustaining it than others.

Anne-Marie Duff, who plays Lizzie Holroyd, is the most famous name in the production but she deserves credit for playing her part in a show that is very much an ensemble piece. Martin Marquez gives a compelling performance as her unreliable husband.

Royal Exchange Husbands & Sons Anne-Marie Duff
Anne-Marie Duff as Lizzie Holroyd. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

All the domestic strife in Husbands & Sons makes it a gruelling theatrical experience at times. It's also debatable how well D.H. Lawrence would be remembered if we only knew his plays. But these three dramas, especially in the way they are brought together in Ben Power's adaptation and directed by Marianne Elliott , are a powerful testament to a community and way of life that has receded into history, for better and for worse.

Royal Exchange Husbands & Sons
Photo by Manuel Harlan.
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Why? Drama that digs deep
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange, Manchester
Cost: From £10
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