The Daughter-in-Law at the Arcola Theatre: ‘the acting kept to the pitch of intensity demanded by the script’

Alex Grafen reviews the critically-acclaimed production of The Daughter-in-Law, praising its stripped back production and worthy acting.

“Let her make him as good a wife as I made him a mother.” The Daughter-in-Law opens in the main room of Mrs Gascoyne, widow and matriarch in a mining village some time around 1912. The village resembles D. H. Lawrence’s own and the characters speak in an East Midlands dialect that roots the play, without seeming to cause any problems for a London audience’s comprehension. A glossary is provided in the programme for those who want to check what exactly a ‘clat-fart’ is. 

In the play, we watch two struggles unfold. The first struggle is between Mrs Gascoyne and her daughter-in-law, Minnie. They are competing for the devotion of Luther Gascoyne, son and husband. The play shows Lawrence working through several of the ideas which also go into his novel of the same period, Sons and Lovers. But where Paul Morel has an uneasy charisma reminiscent of Lawrence’s, Luther is by comparison sentimental and inept. That sentimentality is quickly torn up by the other characters, a reaction that stops the play from turning too melodramatic. As she heads out to the local cinema, Minnie hopes the pictures will be jolly, although the sad ones make her laugh more. The remark is foolhardy in light of the revelations to come, but the play takes a similar attitude. One of the production’s achievements is to retain a strong sense of what is awkwardly funny even while the characters are, for the most part, fully serious. Tessa Bell-Briggs as Mrs Purdy is especially deft, bringing out the nuance in a character whose primary function in the play is simply to bring the news that will precipitate a crisis in the marriage of Minnie and Luther. Bell-Briggs captures a complex mixture of tenderness and distress which then slips back into a more immediately pragmatic and calculating attitude. 

‘One of the production’s achievements is to retain a strong sense of what is awkwardly funny even while the characters are, for the most part, fully serious.’

The second struggle is the miners’ strike, as Luther and his brother Joe become increasingly involved in the organised opposition to the new boss of the mines. While this struggle is treated lightly for most of the play, it takes on greater importance towards the end. Minnie’s time as a governess has given her affectations enough to enrage Mrs Gascoyne. She treats the strike as an excuse for idleness and “sluthering”, even when she hears that the boss has brought in soldiers. While both she and her mother-in-law understand the strike as only the shadow of the domestic struggle, the play shows how both shape one another.    

The accents seemed to waver occasionally, but the acting kept to the pitch of intensity demanded by the script. The play is suited to the Arcola’s space. As the Gascoynes huddle conspiratorially round the table, or Minnie and Luther argue, the audience is close enough at hand to feel implicated. The lighting and sound gesture cursorily at times towards an outer world, but the emphasis is on the enclosed space of the room. The set is similarly pared back. There is a loss that comes from this, since the rooms are expressions of the different tastes and class identities of Minnie and Mrs Gascoyne. However, the advantage in terms of speed and simplicity are clear. Veronica Robert’s expert look of disdain while holding up a cushion chosen by her daughter-in-law does what an elaborate set might have failed to do. 

At some point in his later work, Lawrence lost the lightness of touch that dances around The Daughter-in-Law and keeps it lively. Here he is still able to depict characters full of flaws while allowing sympathy for the conditions that brought them to where they are now. The Arcola’s dynamic and irreverent production keeps these virtues in place, and brings a life to it appropriate to Minnie’s contempt for anything passive or slormed. 


The Daughter-in-Law is at the Arcola Theatre until the 2nd February, 2019.

Production and feature photograph by Idil Sukan.

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