I am as London-centric as Sir Timothy Farrar (John McSpadyen) in Hindle Wakes is Lancashire-centric – beyond the M25 there is a world out there, and a very decent one it is too, but where I am is as good if not better than anywhere else, if only in my humble opinion. So I had no clue what ‘wakes’ refers to, and the play itself seems to assume a working knowledge, which wasn’t particularly helpful to me. So, briefly: ‘wakes’ in Hindle Wakes do not refer to vigils prior to funerals, but a holiday period that was once widely observed in the manufacturing towns of Scotland and the north of England.
Each town in Lancashire, where this play is set, had its own ‘Wakes Week’ in the summer, a time to down tools and rest for the week. Apparently its origins are steeped in organised religion. The tradition is not nearly as prominent as it was partly due to the decline of the manufacturing industry in the north and the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, and with it, other education reforms, most particularly the standardisation of school holidays in the state sector. But it is notable that a rudimentary internet search for Wakes Weeks reveals that the tradition still thrives in places, and in a few cases, has even been revived in recent years, presumably so that these festivals can generate some local tourism and boost the local economy.
With that in mind, it is somewhat an exercise in futility saying this show is ‘dated’. Subversive and highly progressive when it first opened in 1912, the challenge for the Tower Theatre Company in 2016 is to persuade a modern audience to understand the implications of what happens in the play. My own strict evangelical upbringing stood me in good stead to comprehend the enormity of what would now be a rather negligible matter. But whatever one’s background, the ending to the first half is no longer the cliff-hanger it would have been when it was first written. The thought processes of Nathaniel Jeffcote (Alexander Grant, very convincing whenever on stage, and conspicuous by his absence when not) were, in the light of my said puritanical childhood, intelligible to me, but may otherwise, I suspect, have come across as unnecessarily prudish and pedantic.
When Mrs Jeffcote (Sacha Walker) wants to know why her husband is swearing quite so much – he said nothing more than ‘damn’ – and there’s a series of meetings in the second half over one issue, this cast have their work cut out for them. Just as well, then, they rise to the occasion. There isn’t quite the quick change stipulated by the playwright, Stanley Houghton, between the opening and second scenes, but every so often, the play surprised me. At one point, Jeffcote demands his servant Ada (Robynne Batley) confirm that the back door had been ‘fastened’; I don’t recall the back door being locked a major issue when I was growing up – somewhat after the 1910s, of course. Elsewhere, a rather weightier matter than that left the audience at the performance I attended openly gasping.
The opening scene, I’m sorry to report, plodded along too slowly. This gave the almost immediate effect that this relatively short play – albeit one that was long enough to justify an interval – was being padded out. Thankfully, the show speeded up later on. And if the characters’ accents seem to travel around Lancashire, Stanley Houghton had no qualms with this. In a note in the script it is asserted, rightly or wrongly, that the Lancastrian accent is highly variable anyway, “that it may be attempted with impunity by all save the most incompetent”. I do wonder, though, whether someone who hadn’t perused the script, as well as its notes, would be quite so forgiving.
There are aspects that of the play that remain relevant today, particularly in the treatment of Fanny Hamilton (Nassima Bouchenak), and to a lesser extent, Jeffcote’s son Alan (an engaging and likeable Jonathon Cooper). For we still seem to live in a world where a young man who sleeps around a bit is a player, but a woman who does so is a slut. Well directed by Ian Hoare, this is a faithful and delightful treatment of this frequently performed play. There were nowt wrong with t’cast, neither. (That Lancashire talk ‘tis contagious, y’know.) I liked the subtlety and civility, even of their supposed rows. It could have been played with a lot more shouting than there was, but this rendering, stripped of overly raised voices, is more nuanced, refined and enjoyable.
It is ‘wakes week’ in the Lancashire cotton town of Hindle, when the factories close and just about everyone goes on holiday. The Hawthorns are waiting for their daughter Fanny, a feisty young mill worker, to come home from Blackpool, where she’s been staying with her friend Mary – or so she has told them. When the true story surfaces, three families are thrown into turmoil.
Hindle Wakes has been widely acclaimed as a classic and there have been at least eight film and TV versions. It is not seen on stage nearly as often as it should be, but recent productions at the Finborough in Kensington and the Octagon in Bolton confirmed its continuing appeal.
Written in 1910, and influenced by the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ and the plays of Ibsen, it was one of the earliest dramas to feature a female working-class protagonist. It uncovers the fault lines in the industrial society of the time, painting a gripping picture of how class, sex and budding feminism interact to signal change. Stanley Houghton’s play was highly controversial when first performed, and his incisive characterisation and vivid dialogue ensure that it remains brilliantly compelling today.