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A CurtainUp London Review
Brighouse's main character is a determined young woman, Ruth Butterworth, interestingly played by Stephanie Thomas, the beautiful and intelligent daughter of a weaver who hopes to bring about social change by marrying the heir to the mill Guy Barlow (Patrick Knowles). She tells her former suitor, the militant Martin Kelsall (Lawrence Saywood), of her intentions, but after a few months of living in comparative luxury in the mill owner's house her resolve is blunted and she professes herself in love with Guy. Ironically, despite the influence of his wife, Guy turns out to be a harsher employer than his more benevolent father Ephraim Barlow (William Maxwell). The play reaches a climax when the already living hand to mouth mill workers are given a cut in wages and Ruth has to decide who she will side with.
This is a big play for a small space but Tim Newns' fluid production grabs our attention from the off. The director never allows the play to become melodrama but keeps it sincere. The ensemble cast deliver strong characterisation and Stephanie Thomas' central role is exceptionally nuanced with the conflicting emotion and naive hopes of youth. Laurence Saywood shows Martin's gritty determination and his adversary Guy Barlow is both ruthless and self righteous seeing himself as representing progress. Peter Broome is affecting as Ruth's weaver father, a craftsman caught up in conflict with his son-in-law. John Rawnsley embodies John Heppenstall, another doughty cotton industrialist.
This is a play of ideas, not a pretty costume drama but the clothes suggest the period and the set has plain furniture and detailed linen. Guy's first response to Ruth's suggestion that they should marry is to offer her a secret marriage, a way for the rich to marry beneath them socially without being disinherited, but which she has the good sense to reject. It is interesting that Brighouse was writing as the Suffragette Movement was starting to win recognition and acceptance for women's rights.
From our modern perspective, this start of the industrial revolution is the beginning of the end, as eventually the mills will close down and cotton manufacture will switch to third world countries with even cheaper labour. The offer of work to men, women and children in The Northeners paves the way for what will become the unacceptable exploitation of child workers, a third world problem in this industry today. Now some English mills still lie empty while others are boutique hotels, converted into apartments or studio workspaces in an attempt to bring back some small scale employment. The Trade Union movement will come and go and we shall ask if this really is progress. The Northerners gives the audience much to reflect on with this slice of nicely dramatised industrial history and emphasises the Finborough's mission in reviving rare plays.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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