Review: The Daughter in Law at Arcola Theatre.

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Jack Gamble directs DH Lawrence’s The Daughter in Law at the Arcola Theatre. Set during the 1912 miner’s strike, the play explores conflict in the workplace and home. Ellie Nunn is electrifying as Minnie Gascoigne. 

I’ve never seen The Daughter in Law performed before so it was with great eagerness that I headed to the Arcola theatre, Dalston after reading a glowing review in The Guardian that described it as ‘arguably the best account of working-class life in British drama’. Lawrence wrote eight plays during his brief lifetime, but only The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd made it to the stage where it was performed in 1916. It would shock middle class Edwardian critics with its ‘sordid picture of lower class life’.

Lawrence came from a family of coal miners. His father, Arthur, worked as a butty at Brinsley Colliery, which would take the life of his Uncle James in 1880. Industrialisation was also responsible for the destruction of the natural landscape, a theme that recurs throughout his work. Lawrence knew intimately about the world in which he was describing, enabling him to vividly and accurately capture life in mining communities from the inside.

The Daughter in Law is set during the 1912 strike when miners, along with Dockers, railway workers, and other labourers, fought for better pay. Miners pay was dictated by the market, meaning a lower wage packet when sales were low. Pit-clothes were no longer provided by the company, adding another additional cost. This had particular resonance for Lawrence as his paternal grandfather, John Lawrence, moved to Eastwood in the 1850s to be company tailor at Brinsley colliery, stocking huge rolls of flannel to clothe the workforce.

One million miners came out on strike in February 1912. They were partly vindicated with the passing of the Coal Mines Minimum Wage Act on 29 March 1912. Although it wasn’t as much as they had sought, it at least guaranteed a minimum of 6s 6d a day nationwide, although in Nottinghamshire it was slightly higher at 7s 6d.

All of these themes are drawn out in the play, which focusses on the two Gascoigne brothers, Luther (Harry Hepple) and Joe (Matthew Biddulph), Luther’s new wife, Minnie, and the domineering mother who rules over the family home. But where there should be unity, we instead see a series of conflicts. Blackleggers (workmen who refused to join the strike) infuriate the Gascoigne brothers because their selfish actions belittle the cause of other miners, echoing sentiments that would be drawn out a century later in the 1984 miner’s strike when Nottingham gained the unfortunate title of ‘Scab City’.

Lawrence frames this dispute in a way that thoughtfully balances out the perspectives of the affected characters. Minnie is frustrated because her husband is emotionally withdrawn, unable to turn to her for love and support, whereas Luther feels emasculated by his wife as she has substantial savings that could bail them out of the situation. In a fit of petulance, he threatens to draft in another housewife to do the chores so that Minnie can experience the humiliation of blacklegging in the domestic sphere. Minnie responds by blowing her entire savings on a shopping spree. It’s an act of independent defiance, but an indulgence that infuriates Luther so much that he burns some of her newly acquired possessions. As despicable as both of their actions are, it finally brings them together as they are now equal in their poverty.

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Minnie is the absolute star of the show, thanks to an electrifying performance by Ellie Nunn. She dominates the stage; screaming, shouting and shrieking her frustrations to spellbinding effect. Members of the audience around me jerked up in shock when she started laying into her husband, which was partly due to the intimate set design that positioned the audience closely around their candlelit front room.

One noticeable absence from the play was the father, killed previously by an accident down the pit. Therefore this is as much a play about the hardships of women, struggling on, as it is about the men. This enables Lawrence to explore the role of the matriarch. Mrs Gascoigne (Veronica Roberts) over coddles her sons, which is understandable given the loss of her husband. But in smothering her sons she inadvertently suffocates all around her. This acts as the climax to the play when Minnie confronts her mother in law with the plea “how is a woman to have a husband if all the men belong to their mothers?”

The Daughter in Law is written phonetically, capturing the harsh north Notts dialect that’s inflected by the Erewash Valley and Derbyshire. Lawrence uses dialect to convey a character’s social class, education, and intelligence. It’s notoriously difficult to pull off, something I explored recently in the BBC Radio 4 series Tongue and Talk. The cast generally did alright, especially with the hard northern Notts words (tode yer/told you) but at moments Mrs Purdy (Tessa Bell-Briggs) was slipping into Brum and Scottish. To the London audience this must have sounded very authentic, but I was wincing in places. But the rapid-fire dialogue and the intensity of the acting quickly dragged me back into the narrative.

The Daughter in Law ran from 23 May–23 June 2018 at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL.     

1909               A Collier’s Friday Night                   First performed in 1939

1910-11         The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd        First performed in 1916

1912               The Merry-go-Round                       First performed in 1973

1912               The Married Man                              First performed in 1997

1913               The Fight for Barbara                      First performed in 1967

1913               The Daughter in Law                       First performed in 1967

1918               Touch and Go                                   First performed in 1973

1925               David                                                  First performed in 1927

Lawrence also wrote two incomplete plays Altitude (1924) and Noah’s Flood (1925)

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts.  Is there a place for his plays and if so, how do we represent them? How do we explore the conflicts raised in The Daughter in Law or the inner conflicts that drove Lawrence into exile? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

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