The Finborough’s recent commission of four one-act plays from the Manchester School of Playwrights is a prime example of less is more. Director Anna Marsland brings to life the work of Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse – four playwrights originally championed by Annie Horniman over one hundered years ago all guided by an ethos of depicting ‘real’ Lancastrian life in the industrial age.
The evening opened with The Price of Coal, a Brighouse play examining the universal hardships suffered by miners and their families. Lonesome Like, another Brighouse work, ended the evening with a glimpse into the plight of those living under the Poor Laws of the early twentieth century. These two plays were arguably the least complex of the four pieces and tested one’s attention on a few occasions but nevertheless complimented the rest of the repertoire well.
However, Allan Monkhouse’s Night Watches was gripping. Set in a Red Cross Hospital treating soldiers injured during the Second World War, an orderly arrives in the night. He is approached by a soldier from the “small ward” who complains of the sleep-talking of his fellow resident, a deaf and dumb soldier. The brilliant Graham O’Mara shines as the awkward northern complainant; his is undoubtedly the stand out performance. James Holmes, assuming the role of the orderly, bounces off O’Mara to great effect: the pair deliver humour whilst also posing questions about good and evil. Monkhouse presents the concept of the universality of human nature linked to the uniformity people when they sleep; it is not a hugely complicated idea but is certainly thought provoking.
Following the interval came Stanley Houghton’s The Old Testament and The New, underpinned by straightforward themes of Christianity, forgiveness and hypocrisy. Jemma Churchill was particularly moving as a mother and a wife suffering from crippling loneliness.
The entire piece was beautifully efficient. Amelia Jane Hankin’s set was versatile and simple. By fusing a modern tent-like backdrop with furniture and décor from the period, it managed to function convincingly for each of the four settings.
Although there were clearly varying levels of experience, the acting was effortless and, frankly, mastering the thick rural northern dialect was a feat in itself. Ursula Mohan was a treat to watch. Although there was perhaps too much polish on her first performance as Ellen Tyldesley, her depiction of the crippled old Sarah Ormerod was so eerily accurate I thought I was watching my own grandmother.
It is rare I find myself wishing for another act at the end of a play. Marsland should be proud of what she has achieved.
Horniman’s Choice is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 13 October. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.