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Review of The Daughter-in-Law at the Arcola Theatre

Daughter-In-Law: Veronica Roberts (Mrs Gascoyne) Tessa Bell-Briggs (Mrs Purdy) - photo by Idil Sukan
Daughter-In-Law: Veronica Roberts (Mrs Gascoyne) Tessa Bell-Briggs (Mrs Purdy) – photo by Idil Sukan

There is often a good reason why a particular play hasn’t been put on very often – put simply, it’s not very good, or otherwise, it is good, but not as good as the plays that are more popular. If you were to take a look at the script for The Daughter-in-Law (it’s on Project Gutenberg online if you don’t fancy purchasing a copy), it’s immediately noticeable that much of it is written phonetically. At the very first glance, or so I thought to myself, I might as well be trying to read Chaucer. A note in the programme explains further, telling readers that the play is “in the dialect that [DH] Lawrence [1885-1930], whose father was a coal miner, had grown up hearing and speaking in Eastwood, between Nottingham and Derby”.

I’d known thee-ing and thou-ing in Lancashire and Yorkshire, still apparently used today by some people of pensionable age there (I say, ‘apparently’ – on a recent trip to Sheffield I heard nobody ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ their way through a conversation), but I hadn’t appreciated until now that such a manner of speaking, even between close friends, used to be commonplace as far south as Nottingham in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But understanding proceedings was never difficult in a script that maintains a tight storyline, with five onstage characters, all functioning within the same community.

The daughter-in-law of the show’s title, Minnie Gascoyne (Ellie Nunn) has considerably less (if any at all) local dialect in her vocabulary. A relatively clipped accent comes from working in domestic service rather than being a person of privilege. Written before its time, the play, I am reliably informed, was never produced in Lawrence’s lifetime. Only after the success of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) in London was there an appetite amongst theatre audiences for realism, however harsh it may be. Escapism is very much still present in theatre, of course – and seen through contemporary lenses, the happy ending in this play might well be a form of well-made
tidiness, a sort of ‘and they lived happily ever after’ curtain-dropper.

Daughter-In-Law Harry Hepple (Luther Gascoyne) photo by Idil Sukan
Daughter-In-Law Harry Hepple (Luther Gascoyne) photo by Idil Sukan

The forthright and formidable Mrs Gascoyne (Veronica Roberts) runs her house like a hospital matron of her era ran a ward. She launches into a stern admonishment of youngest son Joe (Matthew Biddulph), only to cut his dinner up for him, quite lovingly, as though he were still prepubescent. A sprightly start to the play leaves the subsequent scenes before the interval relatively sluggish, and I wonder if the interval could have been inserted a little earlier than eighty minutes in, especially as the second ‘half’ is only forty minutes.

The older son, Luther (Harry Hepple), is at the centre of a scandal causing much consternation for him, his brother, his mother and Mrs Purdy (Tessa Bell-Briggs). There are the inevitable disagreements as to how to proceed, and there is a need – whether the characters realise it or not – to abide by social conventions of the time. The final showdown, the make or break scene for Luther and Minnie’s relationship, is riveting to the core, even if it does get a tad melodramatic.

All characters are well developed, and if it does feel a little slow at times, it’s a play that holds up remarkably well given it’s over a century old. It’s a minor point, really, but I was rather impressed with actual meals being consumed at the dinner table – few productions, for whatever reason, dare to be that realistic. A lively and impassioned revival.

4 stars

Review by Chris Comaweng

A marriage on the rocks. A community under pressure.
The Daughter-in-Law is D H Lawrence’s groundbreaking play about sex and inequality in the shadow of the Nottinghamshire mines.

Radical for its sensitive and honest portrayal of working-class life, it was never published or performed in Lawrence’s lifetime.

This searing production – the first in London for over 15 years – is staged in the round and underground at Arcola Theatre.

Harry Hepple (Luther Gascoyne)
Ellie Nunn (Minnie Gascoyne)
Veronica Roberts (Mrs Gascoyne)
Matthew Biddulph (Joe Gascoyne)
Tessa Bell-Briggs (Mrs Purdy)

Creative team:
Director Jack Gamble. Designer Louie Whitemore. Lighting Designer Geoff Hense. Sound Designer Dinah Mullen. Associate Director Quentin Beroud.
A co-production by Arcola Theatre and Dippermouth

23 May–23 June 2018
Arcola Theatre and Dippermouth
The Daughter-in-Law
by D H Lawrence
Directed by Jack Gamble
Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL


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