Friday, 6 November 2015

Theatre review: Husbands & Sons

The National's new epic is called Husbands & Sons but it's the wives and mothers - underappreciated and overbearing, respectively - who hold centre stage. Ben Power adapts three DH Lawrence stories of a coal-mining town between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire in 1911, having them play out in parallel in a single neighbourhood. Three houses are marked out on Bunny Christie's in-the-round set: At the Holroyds', Lizzie (Anne-Marie Duff) is always saying she's finally had enough of her husband Charles (Martin Marquez,) an angry drunk who's not above stumbling home in the middle of the night with other women in tow. But she always takes him back, despite the efforts of the plant's electrician Blackmore (Philip McGinley,) even when he reveals he's in love with her, and his plan to help her escape with him to Spain.

Round the corner at the Gascoignes', one of Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey's alternate Constellations universes has gone very wrong: Luther and Minnie have only been married six weeks but already their relationship seems to have reached a point of mutual loathing. Luther is convinced Minnie only married him when she ran out of other options, but he's the one who played the field - another local girl he slept with shortly before the wedding is now pregnant, and her mother wants cash to keep it quiet.

Between these houses is perhaps the slightest of the three stories, in the Lambert house. Walter (Lloyd Hutchinson) accuses his wife Lydia (Julia Ford) of having another man she prefers to him, but it's not a lover: Lydia is devoted to her son Ernest (Johnny Gibbon,) who's going to college in hopes of a better life than his parents', and has become insufferably pretentious about it in the process. He's also met a girl, and his mother can't stand the idea of sharing him.

It is, just as it seems, typically grim DH Lawrence fare, but director Marianne Elliott characteristically instills it with a lot of life and real feeling. From the opening as a lighting rig is raised above the stage, echoing the lift up from the coalmine bringing the husbands home, there's an energy built around the hard manual work that sees the men spend most of their time coated in coal dust. For me, the Gascoignes' story felt the most fully fleshed-out, but that might be because their part of the set was closest to where I was sitting. In Luther and his brother Joe (Matthew Barker,) and their eventual admission that they're tied to their mother's apron strings to the point that no wife will ever be good enough, it sums up the vicious circle Lawrence offers: Neglected by their husbands, the women focus on their sons, who will in turn neglect their wives.

Although nicely done, the Lamberts' story feels less essential than the other two, although it does back up these themes. But with Duff as the production's star name, it's Lizzie who's ultimately the story's traffic heroine, her unmerited sense of guilt over an event she couldn't have prevented will likely haunt her long after the events of the play. I wouldn't want to be this immersed in Lawrence's depressing world too often, but Elliott's production gives a lot of life to Power's well-constructed merging of the three plays.

Husbands & Sons by DH Lawrence, adapted by Ben Power, is booking in repertory until the 10th of February at the National Theatre's Dorfman (returns, day seats and rush tickets only) then continuing on tour to Manchester.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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