Sunday 16 September 2012

Theatre review: Hindle Wakes

"It isn't fair, but it's usual." Stanley Houghton's story of the small industrial Lancashire town of Hindle, where three families are trying to avoid scandal, has been seen as a classic proto-feminist play, and apparently when first produced Hindle Wakes proved controversial. Given a fairly light-hearted revival at the Finborough Theatre by Bethan Dear, it's still possible to see how it could have put people's backs up in 1912, with its cheeky asides about the suffragettes amid a surprisingly modern attitude to female sexuality. When the friend who was meant to provide her alibi meets with a tragic accident, Fanny's (Ellie Turner) weekend away with mill owner's son Alan Jeffcote (Graham O'Mara) is exposed. If word gets out that Fanny's a "ruined woman" nobody will marry her, so her father Christopher (Peter Ellis) is dispatched to get Alan to do the "decent thing." But there's a complication as Alan's long been engaged to another woman.

Houghton's play follows a fairly simple structure, a series of encounters, mainly in the Jeffcotes' breakfast room, as the families are gradually made aware of the news, and try to come up with an arrangement that suits everyone. So it's to everyone's credit that, even with the shock factor of a woman having pre-marital sex sex long gone, there's still plenty for a modern audience to enjoy. A lot of this is down to the often comic nature of Houghton's blunt Lancashire dialogue, which the cast take advantage of to amusing effect.

Most of the roles are pretty evenly spread out, giving almost everyone their moment to shine (with Harriet Creelman's Ada the only thankless role.) Peter Ellis as Fanny's father and Richard Durden as Alan's, have a good rapport as the old friends of different financial stations trying to deal with an uncomfortable situation. Anna Carteret is suitably formidable as Fanny's mother, O'Mara amusing as the caddish, out-of-his-depth Alan, while Sidney Livingstone as the fabulously sideburned Sir Timothy gets, despite a light touch, one of the most telling moments of hypocrisy in the play. Though Fanny would seem the obvious model of female empowerment, Sarah Winter's Beatrice (Alan's unfortunate fiancée) is, in her own more traditional way, strong-willed and capable of surprising, and even Alan's mother (Susan Penhaligon,) always out to assert her status as lady of the manor, gets the odd moment to show a more enlightened point of view.

It's a bit of a shame that the synopsis in the Finborough's publicity essentially gives away the major event of the final act, and what was presumably a bit of a big twist when the play was first produced. Fanny's independence was probably a shocker, but I suspect the real point of controversy was the play's insistence on her as a woman who not only enjoys sex for its own sake, but is as able as a man use someone for her own sexual gratification alone, and moreover doesn't see anything wrong in that. Houghton frequently takes pot-shots at the hypocrisy which sees a woman ruined if she indulges her sexuality, while a man is only in any kind of trouble if he gets caught.

Hindle Wakes by Stanley Houghton is booking until the 29th of September at the Finborough Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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