Hindle Wakes at the Duke's, Lancaster
Any glance at the tabloid press will show that women's sexual behaviour tends to be policed to a far greater extent than men's. If this holds true in 2015, how much worse must the situation have been in 1912, seven years before any women in the UK achieved the right to vote, and sixteen years before full female suffrage? In that year, though, Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes had its first stage performance.
It was hugely controversial at the time, with its theme of unmarried sex and attack on the double standard of morality. The Bolton Octogon's pacey modern revival, which transferred to the Round stage at the Duke's, Lancaster for the final week of its run (24-28th March 2015) still manages to pack a punch.
Fanny Hawthorn (played in this production by newcomer Natasha Davidson) is the girl from a Lancashire weaving shed who asserts the right to "have a bit of fun" on the same terms a man.
The play starts with Mr and Mrs Hawthorn (played by Russell Richardson and Kathy Jamieson) awaiting their daughter's return from the Wakes Week holiday. When Fanny arrives they subject her to a hostile cross-examination about her last week's whereabouts. She claims to have been in Blackpool, but her alibi is shattered when her father unexpectedly reveals that Mary, the friend who had been covering for her, had been drowned in Blackpool the previous day. Overcome with grief and shock, Fanny is badgered into confessing to have spent the weekend in Llandudno with Alan Jeffson, her employer's son.
Although the relationship between Alan and Fanny is the catalyst for events, the spotlight is on the older generation. Alan's parents, the Jeffcotes have risen from having been millworkers themselves.
While the first act felt, at times, somewhat stilted and stylised, the play shifts up a gear as soon as the action moves to Bank Top, the Jeffcote's fourteen bedroom mansion.
The stand-out performance in this production is Barbara Drennan as Mrs Jeffcote. All the previous Hindle Wakes I have seen emphasise her snobbery, her careful positioning of her "h"s, her anxiousness to assure everyone that the Jeffcotes spent their holiday in Norway, in June, not with the polloi in Blackpool, in August. Those still exist in this performance, but what I have not seen before is the visible emotional and physical bond between the older Jeffcotes. James Quinn's Nat Jeffcote runs her close; his performance, despite one or two minor glitches, is full of energy, variety and conviction.
The Jeffcotes are obviously still in love, delicately conveyed by little touches like Mrs Jeffcote snatching a quick kiss as she refreshes her husband's whisky glass. Nat Jeffcote's assurance to his fellow mill-owner Sir Tim Farrar (Colin Connor), the father of Alan's unfortunate fiancée Beatrice (Sarah Vezmar), that he had no sexual misconduct to conceal from his wife, before or after the marriage, rings entirely true. The phrase one could imagine him using is "Why go out for tripe when I have steak at home?"
The Jeffcotes are a partnership even when their objectives are opposed: less so the Hawthorns. Kathy Jamieson brings out the shrewish, calculating side to Fanny's mother, Mrs Hawthorn. It becomes apparent that for all her talk of moral disapproval, her main interest is how Fanny can improve the family fortunes by forcing Alan into marriage. Her husband, by contrast, is a kindly, not imperceptive but defeated man, all points which Richardson brings out.
Everything builds towards Fanny's great declaration, that she is going to do what she wants and considers best calculated to secure her own happiness, not anyone else's, and that "while there's a weaving shed in Lancashire" she can earn her own living.
Still, the final moment is left to Mrs Jeffcote who, having been finally brought to realise Fanny's value system and hers are not that far apart, nevertheless allows herself a little private skip and hand-clap of delight.
The main image used for this article is: 'L/R Natasha Davidson as Fanny Hawthorn and Barbara Drennan as Mrs Jeffcote. Photo credit Ian Tilton' and was used under the terms detailed at the above link on the date this article was first published.