Reviewed – 29th May 2018
“The cast’s command of the dialect, coupled with their grasp of the complexities of the characters, lift it above being a mere period drama, making the ordinary extraordinary”
Written in 1913, D. H. Lawrence never saw his play, “The Daughter-In-Law”, produced during his lifetime. It wasn’t until 1967 that his depiction of marital warfare between a pit worker and his wife had its premiere at the Royal Court. Since then it has been hailed as one of the great British dramas of the twentieth century. What is more surprising than the late recognition for the play, however, is the level of praise awarded to it. Lawrence himself described it as “neither a tragedy nor a comedy – just ordinary”.
Whether or not you agree with his self-deprecatory critique, the script does come with a built-in style that may not appeal to many theatre goers today. Jack Gamble makes no concessions to the modern audience in his production at the Arcola, which is to be applauded. He tells it like it is, with straight forward, intelligent and faithful direction.
Set in a Nottinghamshire coal-mining village its central theme is the conflict between a mother and her daughter-in-law. Mrs Gascoyne (Veronica Roberts) rules over her two sons, Joe (Matthew Biddulph) and Luther (Harry Hepple), the latter newly married to Minnie. Despite a fondness for platitudes such as “a son is a son till he takes him a wife”, it is clear that Roberts’ matriarchal figure has no intention of cutting the apron strings. Tensions are raised, then fall again, as the dialogue chips away at the concurrent issues of class, money and the impending national coal strike.
While it seems that the subject is in danger of being overmined, it is the entrance of Minnie that kick starts the play. Ellie Nunn immediately lets us know that Minnie is a ‘shrew’ unwilling to be tamed. Moreover, her hopes for marriage are not being met by Luther. But Nunn’s moving performance, reinforced by Hepple’s multi-layered portrayal of Luther, convinces us that, despite being at each other’s throats, this could be a loving marriage but for the overshadowing figure of the mother.
Initially the performances are a little too mannered, but with the benefit of the knowledge of what is to come it is now clear that this is a deliberate contrast to the explosive final scenes. Dinah Mullen’s sound design mirrors this with the crescendo of the violent confrontations of the coal-strike outside the house, while Geoff Hense’s shadowy lighting design captures the mood of lives losing focus in a haze of coal dust.
Where it sometimes lacks D. H. Lawrence’s sense of sexual passion, this is a show fuelled by finely chiselled performances. It might appear dated at times with dialogue that grates against contemporary sensibilities, but it is a piece firmly of its time and place. And therein lies its beauty: a snapshot of a bygone era – ‘kitchen sink drama’ before the phrase was coined. The cast’s command of the dialect, coupled with their grasp of the complexities of the characters, lift it above being a mere period drama, making the ordinary extraordinary.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Idil Sukan
Arcola Theatre until 21st June
Previously reviewed at this venue