You could write the significant history of English theatre in the twentieth century by tracing the careers of three dynamic women: Annie Horniman, Lilian Baylis and Joan Littlewood. Of these, Horniman is probably the least known, but when she took over the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester a hundred years ago, it was the beginning of the regional repertory movement in England. She asked for plays on local themes, and the Manchester School of playwrights was created.
The Finborough Theatre in West London are celebrating Annie Horniman with a programme of four one-act plays that represent the work of three major Manchester authors – Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse. Six actors on a skimpy set do a first-rate job of showing us why the plays matter, and convince us that they are still very much worth watching.
Harold Brighouse’s The Price of Coal, set in a mining village, is theatre as anthropology.
Brighouse’s script (included, as are the others, in the programme) begins with a long stage direction describing the Lancashire miner as though he was an exotic and foreign species – which perhaps he was to the middle-class Manchester playgoer:
Altogether a most unpleasant person, this undersized, foul-mouthed, sporting hewer of coal – until you come to know him better, to discover his simplicity of soul, his directness, his matter-of-fact self-sacrifice, the unconscious heroism of his life.
Brighouse crams a lot of mining life into half an hour. Fears, superstitions, an accident, a betrothal. The play’s theme is the price of coal is paid with human lives. In that preliminary stage direction, Brighouse says of the women (who are ‘marked by the life of the pit no less than the men’) that they are ‘stamped with the pit-side stoicism apt to be mistaken for callousness’. It’s their mixture of toughness, superstition and rough kindness that makes this play more than just a mine-disaster story.
The other Brighouse play, Lonesome Like, is also about precarious working-class lives. Sarah has worked as a weaver all her life, but now her hands are arthritic and she seems to have no future but the workhouse. Recourse to the vicar for help proves useless. He does not even come to see her himself, but sends his utterly useless curate, who can only spout clichés at her.
Instead of help, he brings a gift:
Allow me to present you with this testament, and may it help you bear your Cross with resignation.
Much in the spirit of Dickens, Brighouse shows that it is the poor who help the poor. When the situation comes to a happy (and very funny) resolution, it is no thanks to those set above them.
Religion also gets a knock in Stanley Houghton’s The Old Testament and the New. This shows us a different side of working-class culture – the strict Chapel religion that took many on the road to self-improvement, but could be cruel and narrow-minded. Christopher Battersby is a big man in his local chapel – circuit steward. A couple of years before, his daughter ran away with a married man. She now returns. The drama of the piece is seeing Battersby trying to be broad-minded, trying to be human, but always brought back from kindness and decency by his terrible sense of morality. It’s a very good little play indeed.
The one that I most wanted to see, though, was Night Watches by Allan Monkhouse. It was included in his book War Plays of 1916 (which can be downloaded here: https://archive.org/details/warplays00monkiala ) – but was it ever staged at the time? I wanted to see if it played as well as it read. It does.
It’s about an orderly new to a military hospital. He is told that in a side ward there are two patients who have ‘been getting a little restless’. One has been rendered deaf and dumb by shell shock. The orderly is not told what is wrong with the other, but we soon meet him.
He is angry, resentful of the other man. If he is deaf and dumb, why does he talk in his sleep? Is he shamming? Then in comes the deaf and dumb man, writing on a slate his complaints about the other one. The orderly is rather amusingly trying to placate the two, when the first suddenly notices the second responding to a loud noise. He and the orderly experiment on the man, getting increasingly excited as they realise that he has some residual hearing, and that he might be led back to health. The resentful man is transformed. He is no longer a mere patient, trapped in a little room with a man he dislikes – he is a man with a purpose and a mission, and the two of them have become a team helping each other.
The view of shell-shock is rather like that found in Kipling, who showed men helped when they become part of a healing community. And it’s very early. The first medical discussion of shell-shock had appeared in The Lancet in 1915, and fictional treatments at this time tended to be either the ‘He ought to snap out of it’ variety, or else show men cured by the love of a good woman.
The Finborough production does justice to these four plays, the direction skilfully setting a different tone for each one, even though the rudimentary set stays much the same.
The cast are very versatile. James Holmes gives two strongly contrasting performances, as the gentle and slightly naïve orderly in Night Watches and as the rigid Christian in The Old Testament and the New. I was very impressed, too, by Hannah Edwards in the parts of the three young women in the plays.
The Finborough is a tiny theatre, but its repertoire reaches places that the bigger institutions don’t even seem to have heard of.