The setting is a drawing room, idyllic fields beyond conjured by printed screens, but Stanley Houghton’s play casts out the afternoon world of tea and scones for a whisky-fuelled criticism of social and sexual mores, carefully observed, but sadly rendered in broad strokes by this fun but careless production.
Written in 1910, and enjoying substantial popularity before its more recent neglect, this play deals with a vignette of Northern industrial life, set just after Wakes Week, an August period of mill closures in the fictional Lancashire town of Hindle. Fanny, to her parents’ consternation, has not been on holiday to Blackpool with her friend Mary, but on a rather more scandalous trip to Llandudno with her mill owner boss’s son Alan, already engaged to the socially desirable Beatrice. The pair’s dirty weekend precipitates an evening of awkward interviews, as all three sets of parents work out what should be done, leaving the young people with little say in the matter.
The cast are almost universally strong, but the play suffers from an uneveness of tone in their performances. Bethan Dear’s direction seems determined to squeeze every last laugh out of the text, which makes it hard to take the dilemma of the married couples at this play’s heart seriously. Anna Carteret plays her Mrs Hawthorn in the style of an Edwardian Mrs Bennet, clucking over her daughter in a broad performance that completely overshadows that of her milder husband, Christopher (Peter Ellis). Continuing the costume drama theme, Susan Penhaligon’s performance as Mrs Jeffcote, Alan’s mother, seems to cry ‘Are the shades of Hindle to be thus polluted?’, her interactions with Nathaniel Jeffcote (Richard Durden) seeing her reach a pitch of imperious excitement that utterly fails to be quelled by his domineering insistence on seeing the sinning pair married off.
Questions of class are central to the text. The play’s three fathers are all painfully aware of their shared origins in the weaving shed, a tie that complicates their struggle up and down the social ladder, facilitated by the careful purchases of motor cars and marriages. Despite some assiduous changing of tablecloths, though, the difference in social climate between the Hawthorn’s home and the Jeffcote’s beservanted mansion never quite come across, getting flattened out by universal Lancashire accents and a disinclination to let the two fathers’ boyhood bonhomie slip into something a little more uncomfortable.
If the older characters can’t forget that its ‘clogs to clogs in three generations’, Alan (Graham O’Mara) is blissfully confident in his status as a lordly cad. His drunken return to the family home is beautifully imagined; he crashes round knocking over vases, then replaces the whisky bottle with exquisite, self-deluding caution. His ‘bit of fun’ Fanny (Ellie Turner) is anything but, retaining a sulky demeanour throughout that is perhaps a little overplayed, coming across as rather stereotypically adolescent. Beatrice (Sarah Winter), though, Alan’s well-to-do intended, has a lovely subtlety about her that brings a note of rare naturalism to the play, convincing in her sacrifice to duty. We could do with a bit more of this naturalism for the play’s exploration of sexual morality to really take off. With hindsight, it is easy to make light of the historical agonies surrounding sexual reputation and respectability, but to do so is to do this play and its central dilemma a disservice. Despite some fine performances, this production drowns social satire in a broad Northern pastiche that makes a joke of every awkwardness, eliding the radical sexual politics at play.
Hindle Wakes is playing at The Finborough until 29 September. For more information and tickets please see the Finborough website. Image by Claire Bilyard.