The running time for Husbands and Sons may be a daunting and potentially off-putting 3 hours, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. This is partly due to the production’s roots in three separate works by DH Lawrence – three narratives set in three households play out in parallel and only meet towards the end of the piece.
Occasionally, they subtly intersect – characters meet in the alley between the houses or react to the sounds of their neighbours rowing. When there is an accident at the mine, all of the characters are united by tragedy.
A nineteenth century Midlands mining village may seem far removed from a modern Manchester audience, but it’s a testament to the talents of the cast, director Marianne Elliott and DH Lawrence that so many of these characters and their struggles are recognisable. Protective mothers, husbands with hurt pride, wives struggling to run their homes and workers unhappy with their lot are all realised in breathtaking emotional detail. Anne-Marie Duff (who I was a little bit starstruck by seeing in the flesh after Suffragette) is fantastic, particularly in the raw emotion of the final scene.
Even though the play doesn’t drag, the onslaught of anger, tears, abuse and hardship does become exhausting. Fortunately, there is also plenty of humour to lighten the gloomy atmosphere – in the wry observations made by Mrs Gascoigne about men, or the giggling antics of Nellie Lambert and her friend Gertie. Some of the accents fluctuate at times, but everything else is flawless.
As usual for a Royal Exchange production, the set plays a starring role. The stage is crammed with wooden tables, chairs, black kitchen ranges, gas lamps and china cups – all contained within the invisible walls of the three main households. An alley runs between them, and around the stage perimeter is a thick crust of coal – a perpetual reminder, along with the smoky atmosphere, of the nearby pit.
This production is all about the women – Lizzie, Minnie and Lydia Lambert – around whom husbands and sons gravitate. The interconnectedness of their respective plights is communicated in moments where they sing, pray, and sit spotlighted on tables in unison. They rarely leave their houses, imprisoned by the invisible walls. Our empathy is unquestionably with them, but Marianne Elliott’s description of the male characters as having an “uncomplicated identity” in contrast is reductive. Charlie Holroyd shows affection towards his son; Luther Gascoigne conceals his desperation for love in sulky reticence; Mr Lambert only lashes out because he feels picked on. Women are the lynchpins of this production – praise be! – but not at the expense of nuanced portrayals of male characters.