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Love on the Dole

Walter Greenwood and Ronald Gow
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
(2010)

Love on the Dole production photos

Walter Greenwood's 1933 novel set in his native Salford during the Great Depression was adapted into a hit play the following year that had a huge impact on audiences throughout the country. It was listed in the National Theatre's 'NT2000 One Hundred Plays of the Century' a decade ago, and now artistic director David Thacker revives it for the Octagon.

The play focusses on the Hardcastle family, who are all suffering from the rising unemployment in the area. The father is unable to find a job and is reliant on the dole plus the income of his daughter Sally and younger son Harry. Sally is planning to marry intellectual socialist agitator Larry Meath, while Harry has a growing attachment to a girl in their street, Helen Hawkins. Harry has a bit of luck on the horses but loses his job and then loses his dole when the Means Test is introduced. Meanwhile, wealthy bookmaker Sam Grundy makes an offer to Sally that she refuses in disgust, and it is implied that it is Grundy's influence that loses Larry his job.

Increasing poverty and unemployment creates tension in Hanky Park, the area of Salford where they live, and the workers march to Salford Town Hall to demand that something is done to help them. The police turn on the marchers with violence, with tragic consequences for the Hardcastles, leaving Sally to reconsider a decision she made earlier for the good of her family,

The story is a fascinating study of a family struggling to survive in extreme poverty with the indignity of unemployment and children growing up to want basic things that are impossible for their parents to provide. The play, however, is a little clunky at times in its construction with some rather obvious exposition and political declaiming and some characters or scenes that are poorly-concealed devices to get information across to the audience. There is some humour in the play and an interesting story, but many of the characters are rather thinly drawn.

David Thacker's production does make the best of the material, creating a few characters that the audience can care about and some good comic moments mixed with some that tug at the emotions. Clare Foster returns to the Octagon as Sally Hardcastle, effectively playing her as childishly happy and naïve at the start but getting more worldly and mature, although her extreme anger and bitterness in the final scene does restrict her a little. Opposite her is Octagon regular Kieran Hill as Larry Meath, a bespectacled, bookish and intense but still very likeable and human character.

Sam Lupton—still in his final year at Manchester School of Theatre—is excellent as younger son Harry Hardcastle, making him perfectly believable and possibly the most sympathetic character in the production, with good support from Sarah Vezmar in the relatively small part of Helen. Barbara Peirson creates very well the role of Mrs Hardcastle as the strong but weary mother who tries to hold the family together on less than a living income but she does a lot of aimless wandering around the stage for some reason. As her husband, David MacCreedy's character tries to be a Victorian authoritarian father but backs down a little too easily sometimes, which is an effective idea but doesn't yet entirely come off in practice.

The trio of Susan Twist as the drunken Mrs Dorbell, Annie Tyson as fortune telling Mrs Jike and Flo Wilson as slightly more conciliatory Mrs Bull are played very well but it is difficult to hide the fact that for most of the time these characters are thinly-veiled dramatic devices to force the characters to answer for their opinions, to fill in exposition for the audience (the very short scene in which they reveal the result of Harry's bet is especially contrived and clumsly) or for some comic relief.

It is easy to see why it made such an impact in 1934, especially amongst middle class audiences who were shocked at how some people had to struggle to live, with its realistic situations and speech and references to real people and events ('GBS' or George Bernard Shaw is referred to and the march on Salford Town Hall that ended in violence was real and very recent in October 1931). Removed from that context—there is no real comparison with the current economic situation—the play has to stand on its merits as a piece of theatre. The story is about a family struggling to survive in difficult circumstances with the real political events as a backdrop, so it still works, but the many deficiencies of the play are exposed when removed from its immediate political context.

Having said that, the Octagon's production gets the most from the material and there is plenty to make an audience laugh and cry in a play that probably most people have heard of but few have seen.

Running until 6th November

Reviewer: David Chadderton