Theatre Review | The Daughter-in-Law: DH Lawrence tellingly demonstrates how societal conflict affects intimate relationships
By Ruby Fischer
Harry Hepple as Luther Gascoyne Photo: Idil Sukan
The underground bunker of the Arcola is the perfect custodian of Jack Gamble’s vivid revival of The Daughter- in- Law, a play by D.H. Lawrence, that didn’t see the footlights until well after the playwright’s death. A working-class tale of grit and scarcity - in Lawrence’s own words, an “ordinary” tale - would have to wait until 1968 to make its way to the stage. Fortunately, the play has aged gracefully, with its themes of class, sex, liberty and bondage still ringing true more than a century later.
Set in 1912, the play begins amidst the simmering tensions of the national coal strike which inevitably boil over into the Gascoyne home when news of a scandal arrives in the form of Mrs Purdy (Tessa Bell-Briggs). The action opens at the family table, where a conversation between Mrs Gascoyne (Veronica Roberts) and her youngest son Joe (a delightful, crisp Matthew Biddulph) reveals that they are both a product of their circumstance. She, the quintessential mother of men, is oblivious to the suffocating affect that her motherly tendrils have on Joe, a charming, inappetent youth whose broken arm is symbolic of a much more significant handicap - a tragic adhesion to his domineering mother. Harry Hepple disappears into his role as the dogged and withdrawn Luther, the eldest Gascoyne son who does battle with his community, his family, and his own fractured masculinity. Against the distant calamity of angry young men in revolt, the true pathos of the piece is contained in the grief of its women, and it is most palpable in Ellie Nunn’s weighty performance as the eponymous Minnie Gascoyne. She lends a biting wit to her character’s conceit which does not eclipse her sincere longing for a connection unfettered by money or maternal apron-strings.
While Nunn, Hepple and Biddulph deliver solid performances, the true guts of this play are in the hands of the two seasoned actresses, who handle the text with lyrical lift and metrical mastery. Veronica Roberts delivers a muscular portrayal of the governing matriarch, while Tessa Bell-Briggs is enchanting as Mrs Purdy. Their brief moments together solidify the truth of Lawrence’s world, and there occurs on stage an electric meeting of minds between the two world-weary women.
The production is well-served by Louie Whitemore’s design which is both sparse and claustrophobic. Geoff Hense’s lighting is at times warm and sensual, at others more akin to the kind of darkness one might encounter in the belly of a mine. The sound by Dinah Mullen is appropriately industrial, with operatic moments adding depth to this story of a household in turmoil.