THE ARTIST AND THE TYRANT MOTHER
“Jesus wants me for a sunbeam!” sings old Mrs Lowry, playing an imaginary piano with a self satisfied smirk. “…a sunbeam, to shine for him every day.Jesus wants me to be loving, And kind to all I see!”
I fear Jesus will have a long wait before any such lovingkindness reaches her son, the artist L.S. Lowry. In Martyn Hesford’s play, based on sad fact, Elizabeth Lowry tyrannizes, manipulates and belittles her lonely son her weapon being a supposedly bedridden state (she leaps back from the window nimbly enough when she hears the door bang of an evening). Disappointed in her marriage and dreams of doilyed gentility, she despises the dutiful weary man who feeds her, rubs her feet, and labours as a rent-collector to pay his father’s debts.
Worse, she despises his painting, the loving work he does by night to record the scenes of scuttling crowds at the Salford mill gates, lone wanderers like him, the trams and chimneys of his daily life. “I paint what I see. I’m a simple man , who paints. Every stroke of colour is made up of me”. He wants her approval, her love, her cheerfulness (“I haven’t felt cheerful since 1868” she says, this being 1934). Sly, helpless against her own maliciousness, she offers only enough crumbs of love to keep him enslaved. When the Manchester art critic calls his pictures “an insult to the people of Lancashire” she joyfully concurs; when a London gallery takes an interest she rips up the letter.
This ninety-minute play, originally a Radio 4 commission, might be hard going, and takes a while to rise to its fierce emotional climax. Its theme of blinkered gentility at odds with innovative art sits, at times, uneasily in the conventionality of the play itself. Yet we are held by two remarkable performances . Elizabeth is the marvellous June Watson, hinting at just enough real pain to stop us physically hurling ourselves onto the tiny stage to shake her like a dog with a rat . Laurie Lowry is Michael Begley, with a merciless 1930’s hairstyle (unflattering to any man’s ears) and a pallid subtle sweetness. Abbey Wright directs, with Richard Kent’s subtle lighting and projection on the plain bedroom set suggesting the mournful beauty Lowry showed us. As the London critic said, “all is conveyed by the expression of feeling”. Her basilisk glare and his sad, kindly, lopsided yearning convey it all afresh.