HUSBANDS AND SONS NT Dorfman, SE1

THE PEOPLE OF THE PITS
Tender, fierce, intelligent and humane, this superb production reminds us that D.H.Lawrence was at his best a great interpreter of 20th century change. Years before the showy hysteria of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, (heaven knows why the BBC chose the worst of his works to dramatize) he wrote plays about his Nottinghamshire pit village, vivid with understanding humanity, humble observation and pity. Here are themes of marriage and pride, trapped lives and rich communities, possessive fearful mothers and feckless endangered sons. Here is class and money and the yearning for art and the painful the rift between generations when education takes the young out of manual work. Here too, noted with generosity, is the increasing independence of women.
Three separate plays are superbly sewn together by Ben Power and presented in the round, village households lying before us schematic but detailed in another fine Bunny Christie design complete with fires and candlelight and washtubs and kitchen tables. The families’ lives weave through lanes and kitchens a pattern of light and shade. The oldest play, the 1909 “A Collier’s Friday Night” is more of a sketch, with Lloyd Hutchinson as an ageing curmudgeon supping tea from a saucer in his pit-dirt and berating his wife (Julia Ford). Her eye is on their son , home from college talking of Rimbaud but forgetting to take the bread out of the oven; at one point he interrupts the father’s snorting wash-down with the announcement “Fancy! Swinburne’s dead!”.
A still more possessive mother is up at the Gascoignes: Susan Brown magnificent as the contemptusous mother-in-law of prim Minnie (a finely tuned Louise Brealey) who is annoyed at the infantile helplessness of her handsome new husband Luther, not to mention the fact that he’s got the neighbour’s daughter up the duff. Finally, up the road is Anne-Marie Duff electric in the most troubled role as Lizzie Holroyd, victim of a drunken husband she cannot stop loving and hating.

With unobtrusive skill, Power and director Marianne Elliott weave it together, occasionally letting the families meet or refer to one another without diluting the individual stories (Hutchinson’s grumpy patriarch brings home the drunken Holroyd, who stays asleep on their outside lavatory during the other family’s latest row). The intercutting and counterpoint of emotional tides and themes is reminiscent , in a very good way, of the best soap opera direction (Excavation Street, perhaps) . But pure theatre are the moments when all the emotions gather silently against a scratchy plaintive record they all might hear, or a Lawrentian poem from lonely clever Ernest in the dusk.

Flashing rattling indications remind us of the mine that dominates their lives; the accents, thee’s and tha’s and nays and nivers, are pitch-perfect (my Mum was from thereabouts, and did it sometimes). A lost world rises before us, every voice in it ringing true with the sad, sweet music of humanity.
box office 0207 452 3000 to 10 Feb
co-production with The Royal Exchange Theatre

rating four

4 Meece Rating

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