Theatre Review: HUSBANDS & SONS – Royal Exchange, Manchester

Husbands and Sons

Intense, gritty and powerful, Ann Marie Duff and Louise Brealey shine in HUSBANDS & SONS

Marianne Elliott makes a welcome return to the Royal Exchange with HUSBANDS & SONS, a major co-production with the National Theatre starring Anne-Marie Duff and Joe Armstrong.

Adapted for stage by the National Theatre’s Associate Director Ben Power, HUSBANDS & SONS interweaves three singular D H Lawrence plays (A COLLIER’S FRIDAY NIGHT, THE WIDOWING OF MRS HOLROYD and THE DAUGHTER IN LAW) into one standalone work played over three-hours.

Intense, gritty and powerful, the play follows the lives of three families living in the Nottinghamshire Mining Community of 1911. Royal Exchange’s in-the-round stage is split between the three households, the name of each family stencilled onto the floor. One area belongs to the Lamberts from A COLLIER’S FRIDAY NIGHT, another is occupied by the Holroyds from THE WIDOWING OF MRS HOLROYD and the third is taken over by the Gascoignes from THE DAUGHTER-IN-LAW.

While Lawrence never intended for the plays to be performed as trilogy, Power has done a first-class job of interweaving the original scripts into one compelling drama. Scenes from each of the plays are intercut to make one continuous story, with characters from one work dropping in on the next. The result is a story of a community built on manual labour, working class pride and fierce tenderness, as wives and mothers fight over their husbands and sons as they attempt to hold their families together.

Husbands and Sons 2

What makes this particular production of HUSBANDS & SONS so special is the outstanding cast performances. Ann Marie Duff is startling as Lizzie Holyroyd, the pining, trapped wife torn between marital duty for her drunk and abusive husband Charles, and her love for a handsome electrician. Louise Brealey is equally outstanding as Minnie Gascoigne, the newly-wed struggling to cope with her husband’s infidelity and the stifling embrace of his mother. Julia Ford also puts in a strong performance as Lydia Lambert, showing preference for her son over her uneducated husband. Among the men, Lloyd Hutchinson impresses as the ape-like Lambert while Joe Armstrong shines as the downcast and despairing Luther.

While the first half of the play moves along nicely, the second half becomes a little drawn-out towards the end and the independent rhythm and atmosphere of the individual works are sacrificed in an attempt to bring out their shared values.

That said, there is plenty to love about HUSBANDS & SONS, notably Elliott’s direction and Lawrence’s gritty dialogue. Bunny Christie’s ingenious set is also worth a mention, the audience sat around the scantly furnished lamplit interiors, all identically laid out.

HUSBANDS & SONS is not an easy watch but its gritty lyricism, witty dialogue and powerful cast performances are more than enough to pull it through. A gritty and compelling piece of theatre that’s certainly worth a watch.

4 out of 5 stars

HUSBANDS & SONS runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 19 March 2016