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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Northerners

It's a sorry soldier that takes pleasure in the hanging of half starved weavers. — Captain Lascelles
Harold Brighouse's play Hobson's Choice is produced fairly regularly in the UK but his 1914 play The Northerners, which gets a showing and remarkably its London premiere at The Finborough's pub theatre, is a rarity. Although written a century ago, it is set a century before that in the 1820s in Lancashire where steam power and machine driven looms are turning the manufacture of cotton from a craft, home based industry to one set in factories. As we look back from our post industrialisation perspective, we see the clash of values of the mill owners representing profit and modernity, and the cotton workers living on subsistence wages and working in shocking conditions at jobs which were machine minding, intensive but unrewarding.

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.

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The Northerners
Written by Harold Brighouse
Directed by Tim Newns

With: Louise Yates, Adam Stevens, Joe Wredden, Laurence Saywood, Peter Broome, Stephanie Thomas, William Mazwell, Patrick Knowles, John Rawnsley, Tomos James
Design: Trudi Molloy
Lighting Designer: Josh Carr
Sound: Chris Barlow
Running time: Two hours 10 mins with one interval
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking to 24th April 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th April 2010 performances at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road London SW10 9ED (Tube: Earls Court)

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