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Independent Means at the Library Theatre

Danny Moran appreciates the revival of ‘the Manchester School’ by Chris Honer at the Library

Published on November 3rd 2008.

Independent Means at the Library Theatre

Make a point of catching Stanley Houghton’s social comedy, as the Library Theatre’s revival highlights a genuine landmark on Manchester’s cultural landscape.

One might have thought there were few such local curios left to pick up, brush down and flog to the public in that regard. Indeed, this month’s revival of A Taste of Honey at Royal Exchange, seemingly for the upteenth time, could be taken as evidence of such. So it’s with a particular relish that this spotlight on the Mancunian theatre of a hundred years ago ought to be received.

As the common classification would have it, Houghton belongs in the ‘Manchester School’ of playwrights - alongside Harold Brighouse and Allan Monkhouse.

All three emerged from white collar jobs in the cotton trade in the first years of the last century, contributed criticism and reviews to the Manchester Guardian and enjoyed the patronage of Annie Horniman’s groundbreaking repertory company at the Gaiety Theatre (sited on the corner of Peter Street and Mount Street) whose centenary is celebrated this year.

These writers’ collective output captured the regional idiom vividly while attacking contemporary mores - commonly foregrounding the struggle for female emancipation with respect to various kinds of social entrapment.

Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice (1916) was the most enduring piece to emerge from this ad hoc group. You might recall Charles Laughton’s hapless shoe shop owner Henry Hobson struggling to bring firebrand daughter Maggie to heel over her affections for rising employee Willie Mossop, in David Lean’s 1954 film version.

Houghton’s own Hindle Wakes (1910) - in which a working class girl from the fictional town of Hindle enjoys a clandestine ‘wakes week’ liaision with a young man of social standing, and is then forced to resist his parents’ demands for marriage – has been noted as the first serious play to bring the North West accent to the London stage, and was itself committed to celluloid on several occasions.

The actor and dramatist Emlyn Williams punned darkly on the title in his 1967 Moors Murders account, Beyond Belief, giving rise to the singer Morrissey’s own dark ‘Hindley wakes…’ refrain in the controversial song by The Smiths, Suffer Little Children.

Independent Means, by contrast, has generated no such lineage - indeed the play has seldom been performed since its original run at the Gaiety in 1909.

A fat-free four-acter, it focuses on the indefatigable Sidney, (played with an endearing gusto by Ruth Gibson), who, having married into money, quickly discovers new husband Edgar Forsyth (a suitably freshfaced and lickspittled Geoff Breton) to be fecklessly unemployable and, moreover, a disquieting chip off the old block.

When his father’s investments take a nosedive, and a spate of stock market gambling brings the family to its knees, Sidney takes it upon herself to find work at the automobile dealership of family friend Samuel Ritchie (an effigy to bluff northern decency played by Richard Albrecht) in a bid to save the day.

Her struggle to assert her right to work in the face of chauvinistic opposition from her archly conservative family is a scenario rich in resonances of the day. Houghton’s script abounds with references to Suffragettes and “bally socialists” - and indeed to Ibsen and GB Shaw as agents of dangerous subversion.

The playwright clearly enjoys skewering the iniquities of the conservative mindset through the particularities of its argot. At one point Sidney is branded a “lattitudinarian” – reminding us that to be broad-minded was once a major social faux pas. Elsewhere, the young couples’ marital tensions are wryly discussed in terms of “incompatibility of temper”.

For all the easy sophistication of its dialogue, however, Houghton’s first full length drama is of a piece with its own structural conservatism, and in recommending this production there is little point in pretending that it has any bombs to lob into the audience.

Conveying the impression, somewhat, of an extended sketch, it lacks both the fluidly ratcheted plotting of a Hobson’s Choice or the complex emotional landscapes of an Ibsen drama (at no point does Sidney threaten to go all Hedda Gabler on us).

Plus, it’s all tied up rather swiftly, sweetly and neatly at the end. But that’s to quibble with director Chris Honer’s admirably realised production, which breathes life into the piece with noticeable ease and aplomb - as a production it’s very easy to like indeed.

Sarah Williamson’s full-bodied backdrops (drawing room giving way to depot office) bring us confidently into the mise-en-scene without any undue dominance, and the performances are skilfully drawn from the text. Sarah Parks’ turn - as the housemaid who strikes it rich just as family fortunes are plummeting - lends an effective comic counterweight to the proceedings.

Independent Means is at The Library Theatre until 22 November

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