When I collected my ticket for The Daughter-In-Law, I was cautioned that I might find the accents difficult to understand, and that I might want to consult the glossary of terms in the programme. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a warning issued to everyone, or one based on hearing my own accent, which admittedly betrays me as a person unlikely to be familiar with early-twentieth-century Derbyshire mining slang.
I confess that in the first scene I didn’t get everything perfectly, but the slang-studded sentences lilt along in a musical way makes you not mind not catching every word. It matches the resolutely old-fashioned feel of the scene: it’s long and deliberately paced, half chatting about people and incidents that will never matter again, and only eventually getting around to alluding to the actual central characters, who naturally will not be appearing yet.
All this chat is taking place between miner Joe and his mother, who build a warm and playful take on the tried-and-true dynamic of steely mother and slightly hapless son. Matthew Biddulph and Veronica Roberts have a way with their expository monologues, lending them interest and charm despite the fact that there’s much more in the way of telling than showing.
But this feeling doesn’t last. As the dialect becomes clearer – and it’s hard to tell, really, if this is just the ear acclimating or the text itself becoming less broad as it grows more conventionally melodramatic – the play becomes more opaque. The workaday heart of the first scene is obscured by the travails of newlyweds Luther (Harry Hepple) and Minnie (Ellie Nunn), and an increasingly draggy pace. Both Luther and Minnie are stroppy, selfish, and closed-off, incapable of expressing their feelings in any way but sniping at each other. Unfortunately, our lot as audience is to watch them do this and come out hoping they will somehow work things out, but it’s difficult to understand why on earth we should want them to.
It’s also a bit difficult to understand why the Arcola and director Jack Gamble wanted to do this play. I don’t really blame D H Lawrence for the retrograde sexual politics or the weirdly repetitive scenes (how many times do we have to hear information we already know narrated over again?) – he was writing in a different time, and the play is what it is.
The question is, why produce it now? The programme materials and interstitial crowd sounds (designed by Dinah Mullen) suggest that Gamble is interested in the social context of the play, and in particular, the miners’ strike that is referenced periodically throughout, and comes to fruition in the final two scenes. But even then, it’s hardly more than a backdrop for Luther and Minnie’s marital strife. This is simply not a particularly political play. Unless, of course, you argue that the very act of presenting working class life onstage is political, which it certainly was in Lawrence’s day, and is the reason (so the programme says) that The Daughter-in-Law and his other plays were not a success in his lifetime. But such a quaint and past-tense depiction of working class life (all-white working class, no less) doesn’t feel like much of a statement.
The whole thing hangs together oddly, and the scenes begin to feel like acting class exercises, with a lot of declamatory emoting and too little in the way of tonal variety or shape. There’s often little sense of one scene leading logically to the next, which may well be Lawrence’s fault, but Gamble finds no solution. To go from the carefully-rendered opening scene to the shouty set-pieces of the second half in particular is a disappointing devolution. A cracking production might distract from the very grating clichés about the relationships between mothers and their daughters-in-law and how they must battle for the affection of the son and husband, but the slumping pace just leaves time to wonder why on earth these somewhat sexist ideas need rehashing at all.
There are certainly worse plays that are revived simply because they’re famous, and so it seems sort of unfair to insist that this revival needs extra justification just because it’s not. There is merit, perhaps, in seeing a slice-of-life working-class drama that was so ahead of its time, a forerunner of a genre that would eventually transform British theatre. But historical curiosity doesn’t really seem to be the Arcola’s mission, generally speaking, and despite its promising start, this production doesn’t manage to make a strong case for anything more.
The Daughter-in-Law is on until 23 June 2018 at the Arcola. Click here for more details.