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London review: HUSBANDS & SONS

at the National Theatre

By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Ben Power's brilliant collage/adaptation of three nearly forgotten D.H. Lawrence plays gives us all the pleasures of an absorbing and moving family drama combined with all the pleasures of high theatricality.  Each of the plays--A Collier's Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd—is autobiographical, recalling Lawrence's coaldust covered childhood in Nottinghamshire ("That's the country of my heart").  It is a world of women waiting for men, mothers who coddle their sons and wives abused by their drunken husbands.

This community of miners and their families, all waiting for a strike during three awful weeks in 1911, is revealed as three kitchens, arranged around the stage of the  little Dorfman Theatre (formerly the Cottesloe).  With the audience wrapped around the stage and switching seats after the intermission to shift perspective, we become part of their world.

And talk about dialect coaching! Fulfilling director Marianne Elliott's passionate belief that a national theatre has to represent a nation with "many distinct accents," dialect coach Penny Dyer has transformed these fine actors into voices that grow more and more familiar as the three-hour show continues.  But this production refuses other kinds of realism; all the coat removings and door closings are mimed with the sound effects perfectly timed, as is the terrifying music (Adrian Sutton) that punctuates the show just as storms punctuate their lives.

And the parallels among the families become more and more evident. There are the Holroyds where we see Lizzie (the luminous Anne-Marie Duff) rocking her son Jack to sleep on her lap, a son much too old for such treatment, while across the stage, we hear the young wife  (the very moving Louise Brealey) of the Gascoigne family say to her new husband, "You are not fit to have a wife—you only want a mother to rock you to sleep." The "clever" women make the worst wives, as one mother-in-law opines, since they will not "coax."  The men, steeped in dirt and drink and danger, all demand that a wife "do" for them as their mothers did. They turn up with broken arms from showing off in the pub by juggling a shovel and a pitchfork, they turn up drunk with two slatternly widows, or they turn up dead.

The Lambert family centers on the young Lawrence figure, here called Ernest (Johnny Gibbon) whose devouring mother (the excellent Julia Ford) jealously hates his girlfriend. He writes poetry and has "an instinct for Latin," earning the scorn of his brutal father (Lloyd Hutchinson). DHL remembers his father's astonishment when he was paid a handsome sum for his novel The White Peacock, "Fifty pound! An' tha's niver done a day's hard work in thy life."

But this is the women's play—their sufferings and their yearnings and their bitterness.  And as one mother tells her daughter-in-law, "when a woman builds 'er life on men, either 'usbands or sons, she builds on summat as sooner or later brings the 'ouse down crash on 'er head."