Husbands and Sons at the Royal Exchange

They say it’s grim up north, but it’s miserable in the East Midlands, at least that’s the picture D H Lawrence paints in the three plays that were performed simultaneously in the latest production by the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Lawrence is best known for his novels such as Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover set in the Nottinghamshire coalfields where he grew up. But he was also a playwright. The Royal Exchange have taken three of his plays, A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law, and combined them into a single production. All three are domestic dramas set in the homes of mining families, in communities similar to that in which Lawrence grew up.

The Royal Exchange is a “theatre in the round” where the audience is close to the action. For this production the set took us inside the homes of the three families with plans for their houses marked out on the floor. The three plays were, in effect played simultaneously with the action interwoven, flitting from one home to the other in turn. However, when the action was taking place in one household, the actors in the other parts of the set weren’t still. Movement and domestic actions continued in the background. Personally I found this somewhat distracting. And although the set was meant to portray neighbouring houses in a mining village, there was little attempt at interaction between the three families. The production still largely came across as three seperate plays stitched togethor somewhat unconvincingly. One of the defining characteristics of mining villages was their sense of community and this was missing here.

As usual with the Royal Exchange the acting was extremely good. Anne-Marie Duff, well known from TV, is featured in the advertisments for the production and plays the female lead in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd gave a strong performance. Martin Marquez, as her husband, was a convincing drunkard. However, I was particularly impressed with Julia Ford who played the wife of a miner in A Collier’s Friday Night, who favoured her son over her daughter and husband. The son, like Lawrence, was a college boy and the play echoes the theme of Sons and Lovers. One quibble. I know quite a few people from the East Midlands and I have to say that the majority of the actors’ attempts at a Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire accent were far off the mark.

I’ve never been able to finish a D H Lawrence novel. I’ve tried, but I dislike his writing style and his themes. And these plays were not unlike his novels. Men are men and are hard, cruel and unsympathetic. His women are strong but badly treated by their men folk. Life is hard with little to smile about. Everyone is miserable. Lawrence’s work is about individuals who are doomed to a life of gloom and misery. There is no sense of the strong community and fellowship that was characteristic of mining areas. Little to suggest the determination to fight back. There is talk of a strike in The Daughter-in-Law, but the main emphasis is the domestic strife between the wife, her husband and her mother in law. No sign of the good things of life. It can’t be denied that life was hard in mining communities in the early 20th Century. However, there were little rays of sunshine that could bring joy and some happiness to the lives of the miners and their families. But not according to D H Lawrence.


So something of a “curate’s egg”. Largely unsympathetic characters and, for me, an unrealistic portrayal of traditional mining communities. But strong performances by an excellent cast.



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2 thoughts on “Husbands and Sons at the Royal Exchange

  1. I’m fairly sure there was a TV production of Mrs Holroyd starring Colin Firth soon after Darcymania swept the land (or was that just me?) Colin or not, I don’t think I got through it. I loved Anne Marie Duff in Suffragette and The Magdalene Sisters. So raw and real. Finally, I occasionally visited the Royal Exchange when it was quite new in the 70s when theatre in the round was the in-thing (I was a student at Sheffield with its Crucible). Can’t remember the last time I went to such a theatre, all Glasgow’s are quite conventional.

  2. We’re lucky to be close to world class theatres in Manchester and Liverpool. And we’re regulars at the Royal Exchange. We used to go fairly regularly before we had the kids and with less money had to go up “in the gods”. When they grew up enough so we could start going out again we got season tickets as a good way of forcing ourselves to start going out again! But not we can afford to sit in the good seats at stage level! We’ve seen some excellent productions and top stars at the RE and also at the Everyman and the Playhouse in Liverpool. A trip to the theatre Makes for a good evening’s entertainment and a change from watching the gogglebox!

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