I love the Dorfman. I’ve only been there three times, but on each occasion it’s had a completely different feel. The Hard Problem saw a DNA light sculpture suspended over a bare stage, The Red Lion a perfect reproduction of a non-league football team’s changing room – and Husbands & Sons is set up in the round, showing three mining families’ homes. On entering the auditorium the oppressive atmosphere of the pits is palpable, thanks to the combination of minimal lighting, dark music and a starkly realistic set (another triumph from Bunny Christie).
Husbands & Sons is an original combination of three DH Lawrence plays: A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law. All are tales based in the midlands mining village of Eastwood in 1911, which explore similar themes of family, love & a woman’s role in society. They have been interwoven brilliantly by Ben Power; for the most part the action & dialogue take place separately, with some occasional interactions as characters walk the roads between houses.
Part of what attracted me to this production was the fact that patrons sat in the pit (effectively on the stage for this production) are required to change seats to the diagonally opposite side during the interval. I did wonder beforehand if this was a bit of a gimmick, or that maybe the stage could just be rotated. However, the latter doesn’t fit with the set design, and it certainly isn’t a gimmick. It really does lend a whole new perspective on the piece. I think, given the storylines that unfolded, I had the best deal – starting out in row D, next to the Gascoignes’, and ending up in row E, next to the Holroyds’.
Choosing to stage a play that shows the mistreatment of employees and the build-up to a strike is an interesting one, as we seem to be living in a time of more frequent industrial action & general discontent from workers in various walks of life. With it depicting events from the point of view of the family (husbands & wives, mothers & sons) it adds a layer that many audience members may not have been affected by before. It shows the conflict between principle & practicality; desperate times really do call for desperate measures.
As ever with the National, there is a stellar cast.
Joe Armstrong & Louise Brealey are reunited onstage, following their stint together in Constellations (Trafalgar Studios), as Luther & Minnie Gascoigne. They are newlyweds who have gone through a long & distant courtship, and the strain of adjusting to their new situation quickly begins to show. The pair really do work so well together, making their relationship all the more believable.
For me, the standout performance comes from Anne-Marie Duff as Lizzie Holroyd, put-upon wife to drunken miner Charles. There is a real honesty about her that draws you into her every action. Her anguish & grief is truly heartbreaking.
My verdict? An atmospheric piece of theatre with a first class cast – catch it if you can.
Husbands & Sons runs at the National Theatre (Dorfman) until 10 February 2016. A few tickets are still available online or via the box office – look out for Friday Rush tickets each week at 1pm for seats in the pit.