REVIEW – Husbands & Sons (The Royal Exchange, Manchester)

Anne-Marie Duff as Lizzie Holroyd in Husbands & Sons.
© Manuel Harlan

The Royal Exchange Theatre provides the perfect performance space for this compelling drama about a mining community living in a small village in Nottinghamshire in 1911. Following the lives of three different families over a period of three weeks, Husbands & Sons interweaves three of DH Lawrence’s masterpieces into one new play – and the result is nothing short of an absolute triumph.

From the minute the lighting rig is hoisted up, Husbands and Sons reveals a working class community surviving as best they can in the shadow of a miners strike. It’s a powerful depiction of three desperate households – The Holroyds, The Lamberts and The Gascoignes. While husbands and sons battle at the coalface, the focus lies on the women in this community. Despite the title, it is the wives, mothers and daughters stories which are subject to excavation.

Each household is separated in the performance space by a gridded iron walkway, although many of the characters are on stage in their respective homes at the same time. As the drama unfolds within each family, the audience can follow the goings-on in each household. This intelligent juxtaposition aids the narrative, building up tension and making it easy to follow, ensuring that each scene moves smoothly through to the next.

Husband’s & Sons has the perfect line-up of creatives and performers – it’s like getting all of the best in their field working together on one show. Olivier-Award winning Bunny Christie has designed the detailed set for the three households, complete with fire, running water and a caged sense of impending doom. Director Marianne Elliott, of War Horse and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is at the helm of a truly phenomenal cast.

Anne-Marie Duff is astounding as Lizzie Holroyd, the downtrodden wife of an alcoholic miner – arresting, believable and entirely gripping. Julia Ford masterfully plays frustrated Lydia Lambert, tolerating her obnoxious husband – she is a controlling mother who just wants a better future for her children. Louise Brealey shines as newly-wed, house proud Minnie Gascoigne, bringing a sense of spontaneity and innocence to the stage as she struggles to deal with the dark secrets in her marriage.

This production makes for 3 hours of heartfelt and gritty viewing, though not without humour. With an outstanding cast and ingenious design, Husbands & Sons is an absolute must-see – bold, beautiful and perfectly staged in the Great Hall of Manchester’s Royal Exchange. And when that lighting rig falls, you wish that you could watch it all over again.

-Kristy Stott

Husbands & Sons is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 19 March 2016.