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Horniman’s Choice: The Price of Coal, Night Watches, The Old Testament and the New, Lonesome Like

Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse
Ine Van Riet in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre

Horniman's Choice

These four one-act plays were all presented by Annie Horniman at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, where after dissociating herself from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin she set up the UK’s first regional repertory company.

Horniman mounted more than 200 plays, half of them premières, in the decade before the company disbanded. She encouraged local dramatists to write about real life: the life they themselves knew, not the society drawing rooms seen on West End stages.

These three dramatists were leading lights of what became known as the ”Manchester School” but, apart from Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, their work is rarely seen today. It is more than 90 years since these plays had professional productions in London. The Finborough has previously staged revivals of Houghton’s Hindle Wakes and Brighouse’s The Northerners. Now it offers a rare opportunity to see some of their one-act plays.

Each of these short plays presents a concentrated picture of a particular situation. There are the women of a mining community when a colliery accident takes place, wounded soldiers in a Red Cross hospital, a strict religious father and a daughter he disowns over a relationship outside marriage and the plight of a elderly woman weaver about to go to the workhouse.

Such settings no longer seem so surprising and a staging within the set of the week’s other production with which they play in repertoire does not allow the detailed realism that would emphasise their setting but they still stand out as presenting something different. Though too short for much development, each compact story has its point to make.

In Brighouse’s The Price of Coal, the miner’s superstitious but stoical mother declares “Theer’s wimmin as pays for their col wi’ brass… We pays wi’ the lives o’ men.” In his Lonesome Like, a young neighbour helps a woman with crippled hands pack up her few remaining things while churchmen offer platitudes.

They present a tragic working class but both have a strain of humour, one in the relationship between the mother and her niece, the other in the naivety of lonely engineer Sam (gently played by Lewis Maiella) in his unwanted wooing of already promised Emma (Hannah Edwards, charming as both these lively young women) and the surprising proposal he makes to Ursula Mohan’s moving old Sarah.

In Night Watches, a nurse hands over her ward to a new night orderly. He is comically nervous compared with the efficient female and James Holmes signals his insecurity with a fussy campness. He has to cope with two soldiers in a side ward, one apparently deaf and speechless, who don’t trust each other. Monkhouse, writing during World War One, is making a point about understanding war’s effects. The play was published in 1916 but does not appear to have been staged during it.

Houghton’s The Old Testament and the New boldly criticises religious dogmatism, setting Old Testament harshness against New Testament forgiveness in the reactions of the stern father (James Holmes) and loving mother (Jemma Churchill) of daughter Mary (Hannah Edwards) returning penniless after the death of her lover. Will former suitor (Graham O’Mara) still want to marry her? The other plays have happy endings but this one is unflinching—it must really have upset the pseudo-pious when originally presented.

Perhaps the social criticism inherent in these plays is now not needed; one hopes their points have all been made long ago. Director Anna Marsland nevertheless ensures they are made clearly. Her unfussy production focuses attention on the actors. This isn’t Brecht and these plays may succeed today according to how much an audience can believe in and identify with their characters. In some roles, these players still have room for development but where they succeed they do give these plays contemporary relevance.

Set against today’s political agendas, they may seem slight pieces that don’t dig deeply or expose reasons but they are still a reminder that we don’t do enough to understand the lives of other people.

Horniman's Choice plays on Sunday and Monday evenings and Tuesday matinées only.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton