Emily Dobbs, Fiona Whitelaw, Carl Prekopp, Jack Monaghan, William Maxwell, Colette Kelly, Liz Bagley, Janie Booth, Joe Evans, Matthew Randell, Sadie Pickering, Ben Crowe
During the Great Depression the number of unemployed in Britain had reached an overwhelming 2.5 million by 1930.
Walter Greenwoods 1933 novel was a first-hand account of the devastating effect of the resultant poverty, set in Hanky Park, an infamous district of Salford.
First performed in 1934, Greenwood and Ronald Gow’s stage adaptation of the book is here revived with sensitivity, the play bringing a humbling perspective to our current economic climate.
The Hardcastles are a family hit hard; father, son and mother are struggling to find work, relying on young Sally to bring in earnings from her low income job at the mill.
As benefits are cut back for the family, Sally and her brother are forced to question whether love is a luxury that one can afford whilst worrying when food will next be on the table.
There is real insight and depth to the acting, with particularly endearing performances from Emily Dobbs as Sally and Carl Prekopp as her fianc, Larry Meath. Colette Kelly, Liz Bagley and Janie Booth, as the older neighbouring women, provide an entertaining, comic babble, and the ensemble as a whole is tight and energetic, with evident chemistry between the performers. This is particularly true in the second half of the play when the plot suddenly shifts gears and the characters lose their grip on maintaining dignity in such a state of poverty.
While the characters of the Hardcastle family are fully formed, the writing does tend towards the stereotypical at times: as in the case of the villain of the piece who is both fat and wealthy. This predictability diminishes the integrity of the piece. Despite this the play still manages to evoke horror in its depiction of how these people were forced to live. William Maxwell gives a convincing performance as the man of the house who has lost his role as breadwinner and now struggles to understand his place in the world, whilst his earning daughter, Sally, has to make the difficult decision to shame her family and sacrifice her own happiness in order to save them from the effects of destitution.
Olivia Altaras’ set perfectly conveys the cramped conditions of the Hardcastle kitchen. But this recreation of urban squalour and claustrophobia is perhaps too successful for when the action leaves the kitchen and branches out to other locations (the moors, say), it takes a considerable stretch of the imagination on the part of the audience. On top of this some of the stylistic choices don’t quite gel as well as they could and the transitions between scenes can seem long-winded.
Yet, whilst the themes of this play are heavy-going, Beckie Mills’ production is, on the whole, surprisingly upbeat, disarmingly so, allowing the audience to feel even more deeply the depths of the family’s sorrow as they fail to save face and are forced to push forwards with an optimistic facade.
Where the production really excels is in making the audience wonder whether such pride still exists today and to think about whether we too would be able to survive such hardships.