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The Daughter-in-Law

D H Lawrence
Sheffield Theatres
The Crucible, Sheffield

The Daughter-in-Law was written in 1912: the year the Titanic sank; and the year of the National Miners’ Strike calling for the introduction of a minimum wage. Written at about the same time as the more familiar, semi-autobiographical Sons and Lovers, the play is deeply embedded in its period setting and has family relationships at its heart.

While historic events are taking place outside, the action of the play centres on events taking place in the kitchens of two terraced houses in a Nottinghamshire pit village. A black leaded kitchen range dominates each space; Mrs Gascoyne’s kitchen is traditional, solid, and worn, while her daughter-in-law, Minnie, has a stylish table, a new dinner service including a soup tureen and pretensions to a different style of life.

A neighbour, Mrs Purdy, arrives at the Gascoyne house with the news that her daughter is pregnant by the recently married Luther Gascoyne. Attempts to deal with this problem draw out differences in attitude and character between members of the Gascoyne family, and bring to a crisis the already deteriorating relationship between Luther and his seven-week bride. Brother Joe is all for paying the pregnant girl hush money. Mrs Gascoyne wants her daughter-in-law to know what’s happened so that she can begin to understand what it means for a woman to take responsibility for a man, whether son or husband.

The key to this play is authenticity, and this is superbly achieved through Simon Dawes’s naturalistic set and director Paul Miller’s attention to detail.

The set is comprised of two similar terraced houses on a revolve, surrounded by an enclosing wall of bricks, which immediately begins to suggest the insularity of the family group we are about to meet. Great attention has been paid to dressing the set with authentic jugs, kettles, bowls, candles, and an oil lamp, which demonstrate that everything we now find easy, like turning a tap on for cold water, was then an onerous chore.

The play is written in a Nottinghamshire dialect, which is often amusing and delightful, but needs to be listened to carefully. The language is punctuated by episodes of extended, naturalistic non-verbal action, which are fascinating to watch and carry meaning. Laying a table and serving a meal is significantly different in the two households; watching Luther wash the coal dust off his face and body, on his knees in front of a small bowl of luke-warm water, evokes the community outside, the tough, proud men who work in the pits, and the hardship of a life of poverty.

There are in-depth and moving performances from each member of the small cast. As Mrs Gascoyne, Lynda Baron establishes time and place by her mastery of the local dialect and is a powerful matriarch of decided opinions whose sons go in awe of her. Marlene Sidaway, as the distressed neighbour, is a much less confident, deeply anxious mother figure, who wavers between despondency and mild accusation.

Andrew Hawley (brother Joe) is reckless, confident, charming, a suitable foil to Philip McGinley’s introspective and despondent Luther. The scenes between Luther and Minnie (Claire Price) are beautifully judged, characters effectively internalised and tremendous rapport between the two actors.

By the final act of the play, Minnie has left home for 5 days, but surprisingly returns. She is no Nora, (A Doll’s House) despite the fact that she could have made a viable independent life for herself. She is, instead, a D H Lawrence female character.

Although the first half of the play is brilliantly written and performed, the concluding scene is hard to swallow. Motivation is unconvincing, and the outcome depressing. The actors do their best to triumph over a weak ending.

Reviewer: Velda Harris