Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review Horniman's Choice

Horniman's Choice
Four Plays by Harold Brighouse, Allan Monkhouse and Stanley Houghton

Spinning A Yarn
TLT and her motor sped along to the Finborough Theatre in South West London, turned into a corner of Lancashire. A small-scale repertory company presents four one-act plays from the Manchester School of playwrights  written between the Russian Revolution and the middle of the First World War.

Founded in 1908 and inspired by a German model - industrial Manchester seemed a sympathetic environment with its flourishing German community - the theatre's focus was on local new writing as well as encompassing Ibsen, Shaw, Euripides and Shakespeare. 

It toured both in Britain, with a West London base, and North America but achieved international repute with its Manchester-based plays.

And it's the theatrical Lancashire idiom which immediately grabs attention in the first play, The Price Of Coal by Harold Brighouse, later of Hobson's Choice fame. Written in 1909, this piece combines a conscious move towards working class and enconomic "realism"  but includes elements of the supernatural and  a music hall sensibility.

Anna Marsland directs  the plays with precision and sensitivity within a versatile tabernacle-shaped set furnished simply by designer Amelia Jane Hankin, serving as coal miner's family home, a Red Cross hospital room, a chapelgoer's living room and  a weaver's cottage.  

All the playwrights are linked by the British Empire cotton trade,  Manchester Guardian journalism and their association with Annie Horniman.  In addition, in an area where the Cooperative Society has its roots, they also catered for the tastes of an audience of politically idealistic young factory workers with weekly wage packets and a thirst for current affairs.  

In The Price of Coal, at crack of dawn, collier Jack Tyldsley (Lewis Maiella) pleads his case as would-be husband to cousin Mary Bradshaw (Hannah Edwards), before setting off for his shift, his offer to wed teasingly unanswered. 

Amost immediately, with lighting by Rob Mills ratcheting up the tension, the tragedy of a colliery accident, inevitable both in theatre and real life,  overshadows  the course of the day.

Yet The Price Of Coal is also a marriage proposal comedy with two housewives, Jack's mother Ellen (Ursula Mohan) and neighbour Polly Livesey (Jemma Churchill), mining disaster veterans, educating a relative newcomer of  "foreign" extraction about mining life. That is to say, "foreign" meaning a weaver's daughter from outside the village.  

This juxtaposition of melodrama, underpinned by documentary working class reality, comedy and a wry theatricality establishes the intriguing almost Chekhovian tone of the evening translated into Lancastrian.

It continues seamlessly with Allan Monkhouse's Nightwatches, jumping forward in time to a First World War Red Cross hospital. An authoritarian nurse (Churchill again) leaves a nervous, educated but sentimental new hospital orderly (James Holmes) in  his quarters on the night shift.

Almost immediately he's drawn into another war: Between voluble aggressive private (Graham O'Mara) and a deaf and dumb shell shock victim (Maiella). 

With an almost absurdist quality, this is arguably the most complex and most flawed piece. Nonetheless, bringing up "pretendin'" and "shamming", it not only deals with judgement and perception of shellshock, but also the nature of theatre, through its clearly defined characters and plot twists.  
Struggles continue with the equally absorbing latter two plays: The Old Testament And The New by Stanley Houghton, (celebrated for the better-known Hindle Wakes)  where the head of the household and chapel bookkeeper (Holmes) retreats into biblical dictatorship, when only a monetary arrangement remains after family events spiral out of his control. 
The final play is Lonesome Like, again by Harold Brighouse (the only writer, it seems, who remains in copyright)  set in 1911, the year of the National Insurance Act

It centres on a disabled widow (Mohan), forced into the workhouse, hoping for a last-minute reprieve from the parson as she packs up her widow's weeds and Elizabeth Gaskell-like mop caps with the help of a young female factory worker (Edwards).
Nevertheless, in scenes threaded with social and literary references, and filled with humour, she finds a saviour from an unexpected quarter.

Along with a carefully modulated sprinkling of music and other sound effects by Simon Gethin Thomas, these populist yet sophisticated pieces receive full justice in this production with skilful and warm performances by all the cast. A green light from TLT for an intricate weave of melodrama, humour and self-knowingness.

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