The Daughter-in-Law (Studio 1, Arcola Theatre)

The Daughter-in-Law (Studio 1, Arcola Theatre, until February 2nd)

Gritty drama from the pen of one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers is given a riveting reassessment at the Arcola Theatre in one of the best productions in the venue’s history.

The Daughter-in-Law by DH Lawrence proved a sell-out success last year when it first appeared downstairs in Studio 2. Now it’s been transferred to the larger space of Studio 1 and while it loses a little of the audience sharing in the claustrophobic and intimate setting, it opens out into an in the round piece dripping with tension and outstanding performances.

Working class realism wasn’t something for which audiences were clamouring in 1913 when Lawrence first wrote the play. They were more likely to enjoy a Wildean comedy of manners focussing on the privileged than a hard-hitting drama about marriage and family relationships in Nottinghamshire set against a backdrop of a bitter miners’ strike. Theatregoers were already resisting the so-called “cup and saucer” naturalistic plays of the late 19th Century so it’s no surprise to learn that The Daughter-in-Law was not published or performed in Lawrence’s lifetime but only saw its first performance at the Royal Court in the more receptive 1960s.

Lawrence himself described the play as “just ordinary” but the Arcola confirms its place as one of the finest dramas of the 20th Century with a production that is sharp, intelligent and unforgettable. So finely tuned is it as a piece of kitchen sink domestic drama that it could make modern soap operas blush.

Jack Gamble’s direction is mature and confident, taking an already powerful production to new heights in its new space, and sets him up as a creative force to be reckoned with. His obvious excitement about the whole play is transferred to the actors, who all give a nail-biting energy to their respective performances.

So authentic is this production, with its convincing dialects, simple set design by Louie Whitemore and sound giving added threat by Dinah Mullen, that you exit the Dalston theatre half expecting to find yourself in Lawrence’s home mining village of Eastwood, where the play is set.

The Daughter-in-Law simmers gratifyingly as it explores the marital tensions between a young woman who has worked hard to establish herself and a bluff pit worker who has never entirely successfully extricated himself from his mother’s apron strings. “How is a woman ever to have a husband, when the men all belong to their mothers?” demands a redoubtable Minnie as the drama boils over into an uncomfortable argument between her and her formidable mother-in-law, and it’s a crucial question at the core of the play.

It’s not easy to get into the play – the dialects demanded by the writing are harsh (all credit to Penny Dyer’s coaching) – but it’s worth staying the course through all the colloquialisms, which are often very entertaining. Those revisiting the production after last year’s run may well find familiarity with the accents rewarding as that tough hurdle is removed.

Lawrence always wrote strong female characters and it is no different here. Indeed the two women at the centre of this play are so well-played they deserve to be dripping with awards. In one corner there is the no-nonsense matriarch Mrs Gascoyne, brought vividly to life by an outstanding Veronica Roberts. This is a mother with two sons who experience has taught to be over-protective – but the surviving men in her life have become too soft and dependant as a result. The thawing of her character towards a woman she perceives to be high and mighty is played to perfection and the rapprochement between them but one of the production’s highlights.

In the other corner is Minnie, played with authority by Ellie Nunn, a self-made woman frustrated in her marriage to a husband as hard as the coal face after only a few weeks. Nunn gives this seemingly shrewish woman emotional depth as she fights to cling on to her beliefs and expectations. The character deserves a sequel to explore what happens next: Nunn’s tough performance suggests she wouldn’t be happy for long confined to this marriage or community.

The two men are rarely allowed to venture beyond a childish immaturity so it is to the great credit of cast newcomer Matthew Barker as an understated but fully powered Luther and a charismatic Matthew Biddulph as his brother Joe, a dreamer who grows in awareness of what his life is actually like, that the characters are so truly three-dimensional.

The final member of this quality cast is Tessa Bell-Briggs as Mrs Purdy, the mother of Bertha, a young girl soon to be the mother of Luther’s child following a pre-marital drunken one-night stand.  The scene between the two forceful mothers in Act One, as Mrs Purdy arrives with news of the scandal and seeks financial compensation for her daughter, is colourful and hilarious.

The Arcola is to be congratulated on daring to mount this revival of a fascinating play of its time without ever making it feel dated. Indeed the crucible of class, gender, marriage and working life has an alarmingly modern feel to it such is the care and detail of this exciting production that it could even be described as a parable for our times and it certainly deserves to be seen by even larger audiences. Lawrence’s claim that the play was “ordinary” couldn’t be further from the truth thanks to this Arcola masterpiece.

David Guest

Image: Idil Sukan

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub