Elizabeth Gaskell, adapted by Rona Munro
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Elizabeth Gaskell's novel set in the Manchester cotton factories where she worked in the 1840s has now been brought home via Rona Munro's adaptation to the former exchange building of Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, directed by Sarah Frankcom.
Mary Barton is the daughter of mill worker John Barton of Ancoats near Manchester, who is active in campaigning for workers' rights in the factories and who travels to London for the Chartists' Convention in 1839. Mary becomes an apprentice in an exclusive dress shop in St Ann's Square whose customers include the daughters of the rich mill owners. It had been expected since they were children that Mary would marry her friend Jem, but Mary has a mind of her own and is flattered by the attentions of one of the mill owner's sons, believing that this could lead to a better life for her and her family. However, unknown to her, these same ambitions had led to the downfall of her Aunt Esther who supposedly left to marry her rich gentleman when Mary was a child. When the mill owner's son is murdered, Mary seems to have to choose between the two people she loves most in the world as one of them faces the hangman's noose.
This is a sprawling story with lots of characters that mixes a love triangle with a fight for social justice and even a murder mystery, taking us into the homes and families of both the poor mill workers and the new industrial middle classes of the mid-nineteenth century. The adaptation is lively and interesting, but this production seems to run out of steam towards the end of the first act, only to build to an exciting climactic moment. The second half has some exciting moments, but the ending fizzles out a bit.
The Exchange has assembled an excellent cast of eleven actors to play over twenty roles. Kellie Bright is a strong, lively Mary, and Roger Morlidge is very good as her father, John. Occasionally the doubling of roles is a little confusing, but in most cases the actors have done a good job of creating differing characters.
Liz Ashcroft's set is fairly plain to represent the different locations with bales of cotton hanging down from the ceiling. The scene of the mill fire didn't quite go according to plan on the press night but looked as though it would be quite spectacular, although it is difficult to make out exactly what is happening. The whole play is accompanied by Olly Fox's music, played live by clarinettist Daniel Bayley and cellist Jeanette Mountain, which adds a great deal of atmosphere.
It is good to see this story come back to the place where it is set in a fresh new adaptation by Rona Munro, who wrote the superb translation of Evelyne de la Cheneliere's Strawberries In January that was performed at the Traverse during this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. However it lacks pace in parts and seems to go on for too long overall, and it is difficult to see whether this is due to the production or the adaptation. The story, though, is fascinating to see and well performed by a versatile cast.
Until 14th October
Reviewer: David Chadderton