The Finborough is a tiny space but it packs a real punch when the material is right and the players are in the groove. This is certainly the case with Horniman’s Choice, the latest in a distinguished season of plays that reference the centenary of the Great War. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that no London theatre has offered such a consistently rewarding programme on this broad theme during the past year. I only wish I had been able to go to more of them.
The choice and chooser of the title is not the London tea merchant who gave his name to a quirky museum in South-East London but thoroughly disapproved of the theatre. Instead, this is Annie Horniman, his daughter, nicknamed ‘Hornibags’, who devoted her energies and her inherited fortune to founding and sponsoring theatres in England and Ireland. One of several dominant and multi-talented women to act as muse to W.B.Yeats, she is probably best known for founding and funding the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. But, arguably, her funding of the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester in the years before and during the First World War was just as influential at the time. She provided not only a venue but a specific home for local playwrights who wanted to write not ‘about Countesses and Duchesses and society existing in imaginations, but about their friends and enemies – about real life.’ No Downton Abbey for her, rather the plays of Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse – known usually as the ‘Manchester School’.
There are four plays of roughly equal length on the programme. While there are some creaky and melodramatic moments, no one of them is without interest, and two are genuinely impressive achievements. It is a rare pleasure to hear the traditional Lancashire accent and dialect forms sustained so well across the evening, and the fact that the same set pretty much does for all is no matter when it is the interchanges and development of character that count. In any case the working class or lower-middle class interiors intended do not need lavish differentiation. Director Anna Marsland keeps things moving nicely and shows real respect for the material, allowing the stories to emerge naturally without any hint of Dickensian caricature or exaggeration. The same can be said of the well-modulated carefully judged performances of the cast as a whole.
We know Harold Brighouse best for that old war horse Hobson’s Choice (1916), which continues to find new interpreters up to the present day. He is represented here by two plays, The Price of Coal and Lonesome Like, both of which demonstrate his skill in taking the bleak facts of working class life and creating characters with the wit and spark to fight back at the tough hand dealt to them.
The former is the more predictable of the two. It is set in 1909 and builds on a double cliff-hanger. Will Mary Bradshaw (Hannah Edwards) accept the proposal from her coal miner relative Jack Tyldesley (Lewis Maiella) And will he return at all given the premonitions of mining disaster dreamt and described by his mother Ellen (Ursula Mohan) But within this over-engineered framework there is some quite lovely discussion and reflection on the human costs of coal, especially for the women who are required to wait powerlessly at home trying to make ends meet, even when an accident happens and their natural desire is to rush to the pit-head. A nice balance is struck between the physical damage done to the men and the psychological trauma of the women, while there is no hint of any easy political diatribe against the contemporary need to mine coal itself. We are rightly, as the audience, left to weigh the issues in the balance for ourselves.
However the second play, which is used to close the evening, is a lovely and even quite daring piece of work. Also set just before the war it focuses on the declining years of Sarah Ormerod (again played by Mohan) who has lost the use of her hands and can no longer work in the mill. With no real welfare state to speak of, what option does she have but the humiliation of the workhouse? What justice is there for those who have paid their dues, led a quiet life, and now need help?
In lesser hands this could be a mawkish tale, but the strength of the writing and acting produces much finer outcome. Again we are left to meditate in an undogmatic way about what should happen to the elderly and disabled who have loyally worked all their lives? Mohan’s rich and layered characterisation has great dignity and emotional eloquence. Sarah’s grief at leaving her home and her few remaining possessions is matched by her dry humour at her fate and her generosity to others, when she has so little to give away. It contrasts powerfully with the self-exculpatory meanness of the local curate (Graham O’Mara), and her young neighbour (Hannah Edwards again) acts as our conscience, registering our dismay at what happens. When there is a melodramatic twist at the end we are willing to accept it this time because it is fully earned by what has gone before, and because it takes a socially daring form that itself challenges the assumptions of the day.
The weakest play is Houghton’s The Old Testament and the New, perhaps because its arguments and assumptions are now quite remote from our own time and the quality of the writing itself cannot save it from a degree of implausibility. The action focuses on a devout Chapel-goer who cannot forgive his daughter for running off to London with a married man. While his wife is much more forgiving and the man who was to be his son-in-law has also practiced a deception on him, he is hopelessly conflicted by his daughter’s return, and cannot see her free from a traditional conceptual prison of sin and damnation. For all the power of James Holmes’ performance as the unrelenting patriarch and the carefully calibrated, caged hysteria of Jemma Churchill as his wife the framework fails to carry conviction.
However, the most intriguing play of all was Monkhouse’s drama Night Watches, the only play that explicitly embraces the Great War itself, rather than its general period. We have recently seen other examples of his work produced at the Orange Tree Theatre, and on this evidence we need to see more of it. The action shifts to a different kind of interior – a Red Cross Hospital where an Orderly (James Holmes) is on night duty – one ward is quiet but two patients separated from the others get disruptive, with one threatened by the other’s apparent deaf-mute status (induced by trench trauma). The action is beautifully resolved with a tragi-comic panache that oddly anticipates Beckett in the laconic, suppleness and slippery tone of the writing. Holmes and the two soldiers (Maiella and O’Mara again) make the most of some fine opportunities.
All in all this is a revival very much deserving of support. You reward will be some genuinely fine ensemble acting and some neglected writing that you can explore again at leisure in the texts generously provided in the programme.