“Matthew Biddulph as Joe Gascoyne gave the most natural performance and almost always felt like he could have ended each sentence with a cheeky wink”
The Daughter-in-Law is back at the Arcola now occupying Studio 1, after a month in the smaller Studio 2 during the summer of 2018. It is one of D H Lawrence’s eight plays completed during his lifetime, although he’s more famously known for his poetry and novels. Jack Gamble’s revival some fifty-odd years since its first staging at The Royal Court in 1967 proves the central themes of marriage and family, set amongst Nottinghamshire’s mining community, are still relatable today.
Lawrence introduces us to the Gascoyne family. We have the matriarch and her two youngest sons, Luther and Joe, Luther’s wife of six weeks, the eponymous Daughter-in-Law, Minnie, and neighbour Mrs Purdy. These are the types of people Lawrence would have known well, having grown up in the mining community of Easton himself in the late 1800s. A thick Derbyshire accent (dialect coach Penny Dyer) is in full use throughout the play, which does take some getting used to, especially for southern London types. However, it does also make for great comedic moments, particularly Mrs Gascoyne’s use of colloquialisms to the young women in her sons’ lives.
Although complications to Luther and Minnie’s marriage are revealed very early on, it’s actually the relationship between the mother and her family members which draws the most scrutiny at the climax of the play with Minnie asking “how is a woman to have a husband if all the men belong to their mothers?” It’s an insightful statement delivered to sympathetic laughter, but at least one of the conclusions Minnie draws from this, that she would rather have a husband who knocks her about than one who can’t really love her, I cringed to hear.
Ellie Nunn and Matthew Barker as Minnie and Luther each show their force in the relationship in contrasting ways, Nunn verbally but Barker physically. Matthew Biddulph as Joe Gascoyne gave the most natural performance and almost always felt like he could have ended each sentence with a cheeky wink.
Each of the four acts are set in the dining room of either Mrs or Minnie Gascoyne’s homes. Louie Whitemore’s set is therefore unflashy but authentic viewed in the round. The lighting and sound also subtly, but cleverly work with the set to situate the play in both time and location. Geoff Hense complements lit candles on stage with warm orange glows. Dinah Mullen’s sound is most notable when recreating the sounds of the mine shafts in one tense moment.
This production at Arcola Theatre offers another chance to see this worthy revival, a gentle reminder that the plight of the miners did not start or end with Margaret Thatcher, and an honest acknowledgement that marriage is rarely a simple fairy tale.
“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.