Writer: Stanley Houghton
Director: David Thacker
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
Hindle Wakes is a local play with a lot of history. This production captures the essence of the themes of the piece and if some of them have lost their resonance, there is still plenty here to engage an audience.
The play opens with Fanny Hawthorn’s parents ruminating over her absence on a wakes weekend. The ‘wakes’ was a name given to holidays created by mill or factory closures and generally involved whole communities decamping to the seaside, typically Blackpool. It transpires that Fanny has been alone in the company of a young man, and that the young man in question is the son of the mill owner and that the mill in question is the very mill that her father works in. The potential loss of Fanny’s ‘reputation’ sets the two families to devising various solutions to this predicament, all of which are plotted without any reference to Fanny. As the characters scheme away, there are many opportunities for comedy and social commentary.
Hindle Wakes was originally intended for production in Manchester at Annie Horniman’s famous Gaiety Theatre. It was in fact first performed in London in June 1912 with Manchester following in November of that year. It was a sensation, and a controversial sensation at that. The mere depiction of a working class woman in a leading rôle was innovation enough, but the first production also contains relatively explicit sexual references and the sound of regional accents on the London stage for the first time. The play was a game changer. In 1912. In 2015, what is left is a funny script which plays with expectations of historical gender rôles, sexual morality and class.
Thacker’s direction is solid, but occasionally makes some odd choices. One scene is needlessly played in such gloom that the actor’s faces can’t be seen. The blocking creates some frustrating stage pictures, with actors’ faces blocked in key scenes and some playing done pointlessly upstage. Some of this is perhaps a left-over from the original ‘in the round’ staging at the Octagon, Bolton, but it should’ve been more thoroughly re-worked. Perhaps more fundamentally, the playing seems to limit itself by not acknowledging its audience and playing more directly to them. The occasional nod and raised eyebrow breaking through the fourth wall would have helped the comic tone reach an audience in the proscenium arch venue.
The performances are a bit mixed. The full comic potential of James Quinn’s mill owner and his friend not made good played by Russell Richardson is never quite realised. This is underlined by the arrival of the excellent Collin Connor who finds every ounce of humour in his portrayal of Sir Timothy Farrar. Nathasha Davidson gives us a pragmatic, strong and unequivocal Fanny Hawthorn and Tristan Brooke is a charmingly open philandering son. Kathy Jamieson gives a solid performance as Mrs Hawthorn but again some of the potential humour in the part is also lost in a dead straight dramatic interpretation. Similarly with Sarah Vezmar as Beatrice. Barbara Drennan as Mrs Jeffcote finds the right balance, using a comedy of recognition with the audience to both amuse them and allow them to see the selfish and often hypocritical motives that sit underneath her character’s views and actions. The twinkle in her eye to the gallery says as much as the lines she’s delivering and adds another level to her performance. The writer insisted that the play was fundamentally an entertainment, and the feeling is one of a production that consistently misses opportunities to deliver on stronger, broader more knowing comedy.
There are some disappointments in this production, but it also has much to recommend it both as a well played historical curiosity and an often genuinely funny play.
Runs until Saturday 2 May 2015