Fact and fiction are rife with examples of sexual hypocrisy that are able to flourish in a never-ending cycle of the way things have always been and are beyond logic. It’s deemed natural for a young man to discretely sow his wild oats (preferably with a ‘professional’) and no need for his future wife to know the details. A single woman, however, would only take advantage of a man’s urges in order to trap him into marriage.
‘Manchester School’ playwright Stanley Houghton’s depiction of sex without marriage caused quite a stir when it premiered in 1912, and was subsequently filmed five times. When weaver Fanny Hawthorne uses a trip to Blackpool with her friend Mary as a cover-up for an illicit weekend in Wales with her employer’s son Alan Jeffcote, Mary’s unfortunate death by drowning lets the cat out of the bag. With her parents determined that Alan do the honourable thing and marry her (her mother quietly impressed by her daughter’s cunning) and Alan’s father issuing draconian edicts (reminiscent of fellow Manchester playwright Allan Monkhouse’s Mary Broome), the young people are marginalised for much of the play (Fanny only appears in two scenes); the focus is on the older generation’s attempts to organise their children’s lives for them.
Bethan Dear’s ill-judged production treats this flawed example of British naturalism (it certainly has passages of extreme creakiness) as if it’s an artificial comedy or pastiche. Filled with oversized performances (the two young women are the only ones who get the scale right), every potentially mildly amusing quip and awkwardness is delivered with a nudge and a wink aimed at the gallery, and the overwrought lines sound doubly ridiculous. Poor Mary’s drowning is brushed over as a minor inconvenience.
If there is a main character, it might the strongly principled Nathaniel Jeffcote (Richard Durden), who left school at the age of eight and went on to become the richest man in town. As the callow Alan, threatened by disinheritance from the family ‘brass’ and too lazy to stand on his own two feet, Graham O’Mara’s clunky drunk acting and caddish posturing invokes little empathy. His fiancÃ©e Beatrice (Sarah Winter), daughter of the mayor of Hindle, however, is a surprise; a wide-eyed sacrificial victim in the manner of a Dickensian heroine, yet imbued with a surprising amount of insight into so unsavoury a predicament.
Holly Seager’s chocolate box-y design and inconsistent costumes (there’s no need to dress Fanny as if she’s in a Catherine Cookson adaptation in the final scene) don’t provide a great deal of authenticity and the fussy set change accomplishes very little. The parents are also distractingly elderly to have young adult children, particularly in an era when people tended to marry and start their families young (we’re told that Mr Jeffcote married at 22).
A certain amount of pay-off comes in the form of the marvellously sulky Fanny (Ellie Turner), the young woman who shockingly has sex for the fun of it. With her forthright way of thinking (shotgun weddings don’t work in the long-run), she defiantly throws Alan’s own words back in his face, describing him as “an amusement, a bit of fun, a lark”. It’s a remarkable scene, which makes it all the more of a pity that the rest of the play doesn’t have this punchiness and that Dear doesn’t allow the other characters to be played straight. I hope the underlying message isn’t that Fanny will find herself in the family way a few months down the line – it seems to be a literary rule that any woman who has sex automatically gets pregnant.