Eeh by gum, ‘appen I’ll go to the foot of our stairs, this is a right bobby dazzler of a play. OK, enough of the cod Northern jargon — although only those of us actually born in Manchester are allowed to ridicule it — but suspend your Corrie-fuelled preconceptions about ‘Northern writing’ and you’ll be properly dazzled by Hindle Wakes at the Finborough.
Fanny Hawthorn is a pretty if sulky mill-girl who spends a dirty weekend with the mill owner’s amateurish cad of a son. Without waiting even to see if she’s in the family way, he’ll “have to marry her” and there’s much negotiation and comical debate among the parentals, including those of his longstanding fiancée, before Fanny finally speaks her own mind.
And that’s what it’s all about – letting women speak for themselves, almost an alien concept in 1912. Author Stanley Houghton was a member of the ‘Manchester School’ of dramatists which included writer of Hobson’s Choice Harold Brighouse and Alan Monkhouse whose Mary Broome, wherein a housemaid is impregnated by the young master, is currently enjoying a well-reviewed revival off Broadway.
The trio were promoted by the redoubtable Annie Horniman (of the wealthy tea and museum family) who had similarly championed progressives like Bernard Shaw and Yeats when she founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Unlike Shaw, though, these comedies are less worthily wordy and much funnier.
In Bethan Dear’s compact but very attractive production, the unique selling feature is that for a fringe show, she’s snagged some impressively senior talent with strong theatre and television track records. Anna Carteret (Juliet Bravo herself), all angry elbows and northern grit, is Fanny’s feral mother, and Peter Ellis (Inspector Brownlow from The Bill) gives a beautifully quiet and realistic performance as her dad. As the archetypal self-made man who rose from weaving shed to King of Cotton, Richard Durden is the most rounded and credibly well-developed character, but his sidekick is Susan (Bouquet of Barbed Wire) Penhaligon whose pursed lips and raised eyebrows undermine his every pomposity, and steal many scenes.
It takes a while for the first act to establish the plot, but from then on the dialogue crackles with surprising freshness and the audience realises it’s OK to laugh. And they do.
JohnnyFox received complimentary tickets and hospitality from The Finborough Theatre.