Husbands & Sons at the Royal Exchange, review: Formidable female leads

Kevin Bourke

Director Marianne Elliott returns to the Royal Exchange for this story of lives lived near the pits – told from the women’s perspective.

Typical! You wait ages for a D.H. Lawrence play, then three come along at once… For Husbands & Sons at the Royal Exchange is actually a rather clever conflation of three of Lawrence’s plays, all written at around the same time and, as adapter Ben Power (Deputy Artistic Director at the National Theatre) deftly demonstrates, sharing many of the same concerns.

The Daughter-In-Law is perhaps the best known strand, performed in 2012 at the Library Theatre in Manchester and also, more recently, at the Young Vic. Coincidentally, Anne-Marie Duff, who now plays Lizzie Holroyd at the Exchange, took the role of Minnie Gascoigne in the London production, a performance tackled here by Louise Brealey – otherwise known as Molly in BBC One’s Sherlock. Power’s adaptation also incorporates the perhaps less-celebrated The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and A Collier’s Friday Night.

Husbands & Sons is directed by Marianne Elliott, daughter of the co-founder of the Royal Exchange, Michael Elliott, and previous Artistic Director there, who’s since gone on to become Associate Director of the National Theatre and behind such large-scale successes as War Horse and The Curious Incident Of the Dog In The Night-Time. It’s strikingly-designed by Bunny Christie so that the family strife of the Gascoignes, Holroyds and Lamberts is acted out separately over three neatly-labelled, terraced cottages, marked out on the stage floor – rather like a board game.

It’s acted out separately over three terraced cottages, marked out on the stage floor – rather like a board game

Switching back and forth between the households throughout the action proves considerably less confusing than you might reasonably imagine, once you get the hang of it. Less successful, however, is the way this design also lends itself to an awful lot of distracting putting on, or off, of invisible coats and hats as characters arrive at or leave dwellings. Still, there’s plenty else to admire in this handsome production, including several moments when the action between households brilliantly interlocks to underline a sense of a community whose inhabitants lived metaphorically on top of one another, as well as literally on top of the coalmine which dominates their lives.

It’s a play told very much from the women’s perspective, so it’s fortunate that the female leads are so impressive. Anne-Marie Duff plays long-suffering Lizzie Holroyd, obviously battered by her drunken lout of a miner husband Charles (Martin Marquez). She’s offered some chance of a new life by Blackmore, an electrician (Philip McGinley) in the strand based on The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd.

Meanwhile, over in the Gascoigne (The Daughter-in-Law) cottage, Minnie Gascoigne (Brealey) is the headstrong new wife of Luther (Joe Armstrong) in a household previously dominated by the widowed mother (Susan Brown) of Luther and his younger brother Joe (Matthew Barker). Brealey and Armstrong are nominated as Best Visiting Actor and Actress in this month’s Manchester Theatre Awards for their last performance opposite each other in Constellations at The Lowry.

Across the narrow pathway at The Lamberts (as in A Collier’s Friday Night), Lydia Lambert (Julia Ford) has to contend with her brutalised, terrifying miner husband Walter (Lloyd Hutchinson), her flibbertigibbet of a daughter Nellie (Tala Gouvela) and visiting son Ernest (Johnny Gibbon) – much loved but, since his sojourn at University, rather more interested in Maggie Pearson (Cassie Bradley) than anything his mother might have to offer. Inevitably this is a lengthy production, but Husbands & Sons is so immaculately constructed and played that it commands – and definitely rewards – your attention.

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