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Husbands and Sons review at the National Theatre – ‘potent’

Matthew Barker, Josie Walker and Susan Brown in Husbands and Sons at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan Matthew Barker, Josie Walker and Susan Brown in Husbands and Sons at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

For their merging of three of DH Lawrence’s plays, A Collier’s Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, Ben Power and Marianne Elliott have built a world within the Dorfman – or, rather, a village: Lawrence’s Eastwood, the place that made him.

Designer Bunny Christie has mapped out three households on the stage floor, which are home to three families – the Gascoignes, the Lamberts and the Holyroyds. The men come home from the pit each night black with dirt and ravenous while the women strive and yearn and try and make the best of their lot. There’s a rich seam of detail to Elliot’s production, in the way it carefully shades in all the various relationships, parental and marital, via the choreography of the kitchen table. The pit is also a constant presence, an ominous glow under their feet, like some great beast beneath.

It’s very much an ensemble production and there are strong performances all round, but it’s the three wives who really stand out; as played by Louise Brealey, Anne-Marie Duff, and Julia Ford, they reflect each other in their frustration, their conflicted feelings for the men to whom they are tethered, resentment diluted, to varying degrees, with tenderness. Duff is anguished and desperate in her misery, while Ford is unquietly resigned – all three are compelling. Over the course of 3 hours it can feel a bit grinding, but it’s never less than engaging, and underscoring everything there is this unshakeable sense that this way of life, for all its attendant hardships, will soon be obliterated.

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A potent and atmospheric fusion of three plays by DH Lawrence