Theatre review – Husbands & Sons at the National Theatre

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Ben Powers’s tremendous new production is sure to be another hit for the National Theatre and deservedly so, in a production that sees him adapting not one, but three of D.H Lawrence’s plays: The Daughter-In-Law; the Widowing of Mrs Holyroyd and A Collier’s Friday Night.

After suggesting the theatre revive one of these plays years ago, this ambitious project was borne out of workshops during which he and director Marianne Elliott (behind hits such as the Curious Incident) saw the potential for something much richer in its exploration of one mining community in the West Midlands.

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Anne-Marie Duff

Instead of one play, Ben’s adaptation skillfully weaves the stories of each one together, allowing them to interlock and provide the audience with a multi-layered insight in to the lives behind the closed doors of the village of Eastwood (said to be on the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) in 1911, as the events unfold alongside each other on a stage separated in to three distinct homes, marked out on the floor in the same vein as the Cluedo board. However I loved that the lack of walls and doors in Bunny Christie’s set means that all three still feel part of the same whole.

The result is that the lives of the characters are conveyed in a much more realistic and interesting way to the audience (who sit on all four sides of this intimate theatre space) and it is easy to imagine all the events we see over the course of the play unfolding inside the houses of this one village at once. This structure also enables Ben and Marianne Elliott to draw out common themes within each play, which grounds the entire production with a deeper sense of meaning and connection.

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Louise Brealey & Joe Armstrong

Through the play’s three hours, we spend time in the lives of three quite different families, all living in the shadow of the mine at which most of the men work – The Holyroyds, the Lamberts and the Gascoignes. They may all be at varying stages of life, from newly-weds to those with a grown up family, but you begin to see the parallels – how the protective mother in early life goes on to become the frustrated wife competing with her husband’s mother, before possibly becoming such a type of mother to her own son, resenting his affection to another woman! It’s an interesting insight in to the dynamics that affect human behavior and our interactions with those we have the closest relationships with.

A deeply moving, rich and powerful production, Husbands & Sons is superbly acted by its ensemble cast, particularly the focal women of the households, from whose perspective we see the husbands and sons of the title. Anne Marie-Duff is excellent as Mrs Holyroyd, raising her young son in a household with an alcoholic (and likely cheating) husband, while being drawn to the kind, young electrician, who may offer her an escape. Julia Ford offers a glimpse of a mother adjusting to a new phase of life in which her son is no longer a child and is turning his affection more towards a local girl than his doting mother. Her resentment of this blossoming relationship is the counterpoint to life in the Gascoigne house, where Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong capture the struggles of newly married life in a home where he doesn’t feel good enough for her (enhanced by the fact she enters the marriage with money of her own) and she doesn’t feel he is putting her before his love for his mother. Around all of these stories is the toil of daily life at the mine, with its inherent risks and dangers and I loved the use of the lighting rig around the stage to evoke the feeling of the rising up and down of the mineshaft lift.

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Julia Ford & Johnny Gibbon

All three women carry their stories with strength and skill and you are immediately drawn in to their lives and despite the rather lengthy running time (the production could do with a bit of trimming), remain engaged throughout. Other strong supporting performances include Susan Brown as Luther Gascoigne’s mother, Johnny Gibbon who, as the young scholar Ernest Lambert gives us an insight in to D.H. Lawrence’s view on his own experience growing up in such a community and escaping through education. Martin Marquez plays the drunken Mr Holyroyd convincingly, moving from drunken fool, to someone who may pose more of a risk to his family during his outbursts. There is also wonderful chemistry between Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong (reunited after Constellations) and Anne-Marie Duff and Philip McGinley (who plays her younger admirer).

The world depicted on stage in this production is certainly not an easy one, which at times is quite grim as we see the men risking their lives down the pit, while the women deal with their own daily grinds of the repetitive life of keeping the home tidy and clean, only for the soot-covered men to dirty them up again each evening. However the quality of the acting ensures that as an audience member you are immersed in the story completely and cannot fail to feel an emotional connection to at least some of the characters and for me the merging of the three stories made for a very satisfying overall experience, one which I strongly recommend.

Husbands & Sons continues its run at the Dorfman Theatre of the National Theatre until 10th February 2016. It will then transfer to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester from 19th February – 19th March 2016. For more information and ticket availability, visit the website here.

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2 thoughts on “Theatre review – Husbands & Sons at the National Theatre”

  1. This is one of the plays I really want to see. Couldn’t get a ticket for the last time I was in the capital though. 😦 When I’m back in London I will try to get a return ticket.

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