Pros: A fascinating introduction to the work of some rarely performed playwrights.
Cons: Four short plays, no matter how well they hang together, may not have enough storyline for some.
Annie Horniman opened her groundbreaking Gaiety Theatre in Manchester in 1909 to champion regional drama. She vowed to read any play sent to her by a Lancasterian playwright and to unearth plays about ‘real life’. She found them in the work of three playwrights who became known as the ‘Manchester School’: Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse. The Finborough has drawn together four short, forgotten pieces from the early 20th century by these three playwrights to celebrate Horniman’s influence on British drama. The plays share the same geographic and socio-economic identity, concerning themselves with the labours of men (and women) in the mines, the mills, the home and on the frontline.
The broad Northern dialect jolts its 2015 audience from the outset of the first play, Brigman’s 1909 work The Price of Coal. ‘Art oop, Jack? It’s gone ha’f-past five,’ says Mary to her would-be betrothed. For a genteel, turn-of-the-century theatre-goer, seeing such lives and hearing such language must have felt like being hit by a train. Collier Jack (Lewis Mailla) sweetly pleads with Mary (Hannah Edwards) to give him an answer to his marriage proposal. She teases him to wait until the evening and, after a playful and enduring exchange, he sets out for the pit. Such levity jars with the harsh realities of pit life that nips at the corners of their conversation, so it comes as little surprise when Jack’s mother Ellen (Ursula Mohan) appears full of foreboding. The play’s simple narrative is a surprise to a modern audience raised on shocks, twists, turns, reversals and reveals, but it’s none the worse for its straightforwardness. Ellen and her neighbour Polly’s (Jemma Churchill) quandaries in the face of potential tragedy give them and us plenty to chew on.
Monkhouse’s Night Watches sees a jittery but educated orderly, beautifully played by James Holmes, wander into a ward of shell-shocked soldiers. For all its snappy, witty dialogue and warmth of feeling, its overtly sentimental tone makes it least fulfilling piece of the evening. Holmes shines again in Houghton’s The Old Testament and the New as harshly religious father Chris in a play that ruminates on the hypocrisy of the church. It’s the bleakest and most affecting of the plays, with a central question that still chimes loudly today.
We’re back on religion again with Brighouse’s lovely Lonesome, Like which sees an elderly, paralysed and widowed weaver Ellen, wonderfully played by Ursula Mohan, facing the poor house. When the church and company fail to show humanity, the community finds a way to look after its own with an individual acts of kindness.
Anna Marsland directs with fine ear for the practical and philosophical questions of everyday working life, which is mirrored in the simple and sensitive design by Amelia Jane Hankin. The Finborough’s small but ever-mutable space is a miner’s home, a weaver’s cottage, a hospital and family living room. Simple in structure but high in inquisitive intelligence, these short bursts of plays quickly make their point and move on, making wonderfully satisfying mouthfuls of drama. And while they speak loudly of their times on the surface, at their core the questions of how we tackle religious mania, cope with tragedy, recover from the horrors of war and care for the elderly are no less pertinent now than then.
Authors: Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse
Director: Anna Marsland
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking Link: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2015/hornimans-choice.php
Booking Until: 13 October 2015, Sundays to Tuesdays only.