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The Daughter-in-Law (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Daughter-in-Law – ★★★
by D H Lawrence. Produced by Arcola Theatre and Dippermouth
performance date: 15 Jan 2019
venue: Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL

Photo: Idil Sukan/Draw HQ


My life, even now, is full of firsts. I’ve read most of DH Lawrence’s prose and poetry, much of it many times. But The Daughter-in-Law, written in 1913 but not staged until 1967, was my first encounter with one of his plays. Like most of the novels it explores the relationships between sons and lovers and/or strong passionate women and weak men against a backdrop of the mining community world that Lawrence was born into.

It’s an uncompromising, rather grown-up regional play written and performed in Nottinghamshire dialect – comprehensible without the glossary in the programme thanks to some very clear speaking, good acting and an excellent job by voice and dialect coach Penny Dyer. Lawrence isn’t usually a bundle of laughs but in places this play – the dialogue well paced – is quite funny. Marriage, snaps Veronica Roberts as the forthright, unsmiling Mrs Gascoyne, is like a mousetrap … the cheese doesn’t last long.

Stomping heavily about with her stick, Mrs Gascoyne learns from a neighbour (Tessa Bell-Briggs – powerful) that her newly married elder son Luther (Matthew Barker) has recently impregnated another girl. The conversation is naturalistic and compelling in the Arcola’s transverse configuration with a longish dining table forming the centrepiece in the miner’s cottage – either Mrs Gascoyne’s or Luther’s.

The girl needs forty pounds (around £3,000 in today’s money) for an ‘arrangement’. Money is short. There’s a contentious miners’ strike but Luther’s wife, Minnie (Ellie Nunn), who has worked as a governess, has a little nest egg. Should she pay up? Eventually she loses her money rather more dramatically but no spoilers here.

Nunn is splendid as the titular daughter-in-law looking after Luther – who makes a terrific first appearance in his “pit dirt” – and then rebelling against the injustice of the marriage she’s in before finally regretting her feistiness and realising just how much she really does love her man. It’s an unlikely, very Laurentian, ending in which the men triumph over women against the odds. Nunn’s is complex role to bring off but she nips ably between cool reasoned argument and passion. And she’s exceptionally good at the shouty bits.

Barker gives a balanced performance as the troubled, confused Luther – still tied, as his wife forcibly asserts, to his doughty mother’s apron strings. And Matthew Biddulph does well as the faintly foxy, jokey unmarried younger brother, similarly over-attached to his mother.

It’s a wordy, but generally well constructed, play and director Jack Gamble ensures that the pace rarely flags even in the 90 minute first half. It’s an interesting piece of theatre although I doubt that DH Lawrence will ever feature of lists of finest British playwrights.

Photo: Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

 First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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