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The Northerners

Harold Brighouse
Finborough Theatre
(2010)

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There are only two theatres in London where you can regularly see revivals of neglected plays: one is the Orange Tree in Richmond, and the other is the Finborough in SW10.

Harold Brighouse (1882-1958), the most famous member of the Manchester School of realism, is famous for one play and one play only. Hobson’s Choice (1915) is often revived and has been made into a successful film with Charles Laughton and John Mills and turned into a ballet by David Bintley for Birmingham Royal Ballet.

But Brighouse was a prolific writer and some of his other plays deserve reviving. Zack (1920) has, in fact, been revived a number of times at Manchester Royal Exchange, and there was once talk of a transfer to London.

Few people will have heard of The Northerners (1914). Tim Newns’s production is only its third in the UK. The action is set in the 1820s at a time of industrial unrest when the weavers, fearful for their jobs, were destroying the new textile machinery and setting fire to the factories and the factory owners’ homes. The perpetrators were imprisoned, deported and executed.

A master weaver’s daughter marries the boss’s son, not for love, but for a better, easier, idle life. Once married, she discovers she loves him and goes on loving him despite his appalling treatment of the workers. Meanwhile her ex-lover, one of the many living on starvation wages, leads a rebellion. Things get so serious, the militia has to be brought in. The question is, who is going to get shot and who is going to do the shooting and who is going to get killed?

The Northerners is a solid, reliable and enjoyable tract. The major surprise is the decency and humanity of the factory owners - and William Maxwell and John Rawnsley have the gravitas the roles need.

There’s a strong cast: Patrick Knowles as the boss’s son, Stephanie Thomas as his wife, and Laurence Saywood as the rebel, all have the right sort of period faces and they act the melodrama in an exemplary manner, keeping it firmly in check.

Hopefully, somebody will now consider reviving some of Brighouse’s other plays: Zack, certainly, and The Game (1914) and Gareside’s Career (1923) and the one-act Lonesome-Like (1911).

It might also be a good moment to have a look at some of the other writers in the Manchester School, such as Allan Monkhouse and Stanley Houghton.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch