BWW Review: THE DAUGHTER-IN-LAW, Arcola Theatre
In this slice of (can I so call it?) Nottinghamshire Gothic, men are trapped by women, women trapped by convention and everyone cowed by the looming shadow of the pithead, from which men descended into the dirt, the dust and the dark and returned changed. The trenches of Picardy were still five years in the future, but the mines were a hell to face every day for a lifetime.
After an unconventional courtship, Luther Gascoyne (at 30) has married Minnie, who has money of her own and a mind to spend it her way according to her ("high and mighty") taste. Just six weeks after the wedding, the couple, never physically nor intellectually close, are finding less and less in common - the best they could get proving not very good at all. Luther disappoints Minnie with his passivity and finds her independence of thought and deed a challenge to expectations. Perhaps the passion between them, long suppressed by Minnie's being away in service in Manchester, had actually been snuffed out?
When a neighbour (Tessa Bell-Briggs's pragmatic Mrs Purdy) visits Luther's mother, the domineering Mrs Gascoyne, with news about her daughter's delicate condition, the canary in the coal mine is obvious to all and something has to be done - but what?
DH Lawrence's first play was never performed in his lifetime and there are times when it feels more like a work-in-progress than a finished job. Some characters seem overly detailed - we pretty much have Mrs Gascoyne in her first few lines - while others, particularly the central couple, never quite resolve fully , their backstories intruding upon, but not illustrating, their dilemma. It's probably a structural flaw to have the least important character to the plot, Luther's lad-about-town brother, Joe, to be the most developed, the most credible- credit to Matthew Biddulph.
This haziness in characterisation presents challenges to the actors, aptly directed by Jack Gamble in the round, hemmed in literally as well as dramatically. The men have an easier gig than the women.
Harry Hepple is a striking presence when first appearing, blackened by coal dust, straight from the pit, a demonic apparition at the dining table. He spends a lot of time brooding, the pressure building as the goading from wife and mother strikes home. But the physicality we've seen in that creature from the depths of the earth never leaves him for all his impressive introspection, but the explosion, long-expected, is still shocking.
Veronica Roberts gives us the tough love of a mother, a widow, a tyrant and a blunt assessment of the roles men and women were expected to play either side of the marriage vows in these tight knit communities. But the woman's decisions are full of contradictions and I never quite believed that she was a real person, rather than a device to push Luther and Minnie together and then rent them apart.
Ellie Nunn has the almost impossible task of giving us a Minnie oscillating wildly between a still boiling passion for her husband and her growing disdain for his lack of "go". She can do haughty with aplomb and smoulders with sexual desire, but cries somewhat unconvincingly - although that may be Minnie turning on the taps for effect. I was never sure whether this intelligent and sophisticated woman was manipulating a situation to achieve her goal (though it gets out of hand for sure) or if she was drowning in the emotional storm and looking for a lifeboat like everyone else.
There's passion aplenty, the sting of authenticity in accents and dialect and the kind of dialogue one would expect from a writer with Lawrence's reputation. There are moments when the play topples over into the soapish shouting of intergenerational and intergender conflict, but that's mercifully brief - by today's standards.
What's missing is a true engagement with these men and women of a century ago - unlike in (say) Chekhov's plays which share some of the same concerns, the plotting swamps the people and you leave the theatre not so much thinking "How could that not happen?" but "How could that happen?"
Photo Idil Sukan