The Arcola and Dippermouth’s revival of The Daughter-in-Law goes to great lengths to meticulously portray a moment in (working-class) history, but to questionable avail. It’s a long-winded and somewhat frustrating 140-minutes, which I’d find very difficult to describe as ‘accessible’.
Jack Gamble’s rigorous revival of DH Lawrence’s 1913 drama, The Daughter-in-Law, sees the marital strife of a young couple play out against a (refreshingly working-class) rural backdrop, mid-1912 Miners Strike. The play’s matriarch preemptively compares wedlock to a ‘mousetrap’ in its opening moments, explaining dryly: ‘you’ll soon come to the end of your cheese’. I can confirm you buckle up for 140 minutes of watching that cheese very much run out.
The archaic Nottinghamshire slang and accents take a bit of adjusting to – but contribute to perhaps the greatest strength of Arcola and Dippermouth’s production. Even as someone who definitely doesn’t get a normal thrill from ‘historical accuracy’, its recreation of a very specific location and historical period is wholly convincing and impressive to say the least. (I mean, one assumes its accurate. Who knows really. We weren’t alive…).
From the moment you enter, Gamble and the other creatives seem passionate about communicating that they’ve ‘really-done-their-research’. The show’s programme is rife with sociohistorical context and dialect glossaries and ‘value of money’ conversions tables and evocative poetry. You trust the attention-to-detail and naturalism of Louie Whitemore’s design – and Dinah Mullen’s sound landscape feels similarly ‘authentic’ to the setting.
I guess my puzzlement stems from whether such a meticulous ‘conjuring’ of a particular historical period really added to the piece’s ‘drama’ though, or ever shed truly valuable insight on character motive, etc. For me, the backdrop never became anything more than ‘a backdrop’; a niche, but sort of inconsequential ‘place and time’ for a newly-wed woman to discover her husband loves someone else. It certainly gives the play a USP, but not necessarily a ‘point’.
And this is the thing. I’d be (kind of) fine with that reality, if it wasn’t for the fact that Minnie and Luther Gascoyne are so difficult to ‘like’. You leave somewhat incapable of getting over what frankly seems like consistently bratty, reckless and histrionic behaviour. It’s just difficult to be enamoured by a piece when you’re not sure you cared – at any moment of its sizeable running time – whether the two central characters sorted their marriage out, walloped each other to death or anything in-between.
The performers are undeniably of an impressive calibre – but a combination of writing and directorial decisions didn’t quite allow me to ever find it a ‘comfortable’ or satisfying watch. The exception to that is Tessa Bell-Briggs’ Mrs Purdy, whose comic timing and astute characterisation is intensely enjoyable to witness. I yearned for her to be given more stage time really, bringing ‘unrest and calamity’ (of a really humorous and endearing kind) along with her by the bucketload at every entrance.
I guess Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law could be likened to kitchen-sink realism (obviously without the aforementioned sink…they don’t exist yet, m8). It’s the sort of play, perhaps quite niche in appeal, where you quickly realise 60% of the dialogue won’t directly impact the plot or a character arch at any point. As a result, and in the absence of an likeable anchoring protagonist or two, it’s the kind, for me, which quickly begins to drag.
Long-winded conversations undoubtedly elicit occasional chuckles, but scenes are scarcely funny enough to justify the extent of Lawrence’s embellishment and Gamble’s resolute pacing – and often require rather a lot of concentration to ‘stick with’. The problem is you never quite feel assured it’ll pay dividends to invest your full attention – and zoning out occasionally becomes difficult to resist.
That being said, you’re certainly shaken awake in the production’s final quarter – with a series of shouty (some may say hysterical) scenes which felt – like some of the younger cast member’s performances – to be ever-so-slightly overworked. Ellie Nunn, as the eponymous character, is clearly a talented actor – for instance – but the whole piece seems to gradually fuse into a vehicle for her to show off ‘good acting’. We’re treated to (perfectly acceptably performed) shouting, weeping, manic laughter and moments of ‘pause’ – but I’m not sure I really felt much during this explosive final section. Although assured, Biddulph and Barker’s performances too struck me as people ‘demonstrating acting skills’ rather than ‘being’ – and I’m not sure their performance qualities, and admittedly the direction which informed them, exactly fit with the realism of the surrounding elements.
It’s a slightly odd play to rehash in my opinion – depicting the under-represented working-class, for sure, but a very specific, all-white, uncomfortably-sexist type. I hope I entirely missed the point, but there was one moment when I sat back and asked myself: ‘are they expecting me, in 2019, to laugh at a man trying to cover up all the other woman he’s slept with – in front of his loyal wife.’ All a bit bizarre really. The piece had admittedly slightly lost my attention by then.
In many ways, Arcola and Dippermouth’s production of The Daughter-in-Law reminded me of a radio play in its wordiness, drawn-out nature and oft stillness. Perhaps it’d be completely your cup of tea if you tune into the Archers, etc. But despite its depiction of a (sociohistorically-specific) ‘working-class’, I’d really struggle to describe it as ‘accessible’. In almost every way, in fact, it felt like one of the most middle-class shows I’ve seen in yonks.