THE phrase “trouble at t’ mill” has become something of a comedy cliche in British culture; a fact that perhaps tells us more about the prejudices of those who tend to dominate our cultural debate, than about the literature of industrial strife.
North And South, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ****
For the great 19th century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, though, the subject of popular unrest in the newly-industrialised towns of the north of England was a deadly serious one; and nowhere more so than in her 1854 novel North And South, now adapted by Janys Chambers for this final show of the Pitlochry summer season.
As fans of its various screen versions will know, North And South is a fine romantic tale about the burgeoning love-affair between Margaret Hale, a vicar’s daughter from the Home Counties, and John Thornton, a hard-bitten cotton manufacturer in the northern city to which the Hale family have moved, following their father’s inconvenient conversion to Unitarianism. Gaskell was herself the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, and for her the novel’s love-story is completely entwined with the fraught industrial politics of the time, as Margaret befriends some of the workers in Thornton’s mill, begins to recognise their terrible poverty and suffering, and finds herself – at one crucial moment – desperately trying to mediate between workers and master, at the height of a gruelling strike.
Yet Gaskell’s politics are never judgmental or simplistic; and Margaret’s steep learning-curve about the new culture in which she finds herself, and her sustained effort to make those on both sides of the industrial divide see one another as human beings, provides perfect material for stage drama, as characters ranging from Thornton’s hard-faced mother to Bessie Higgins, the ailing mill-girl Margaret befriends, emerge in all their vivid complexity.
Elizabeth Newman’s big, swirling production – with a fine score of music and songs directed by Ben Occhipinti, and performed by an impressive community cast of more than 20 – captures the scale of Gaskell’s ambitious narrative about a nation divided by traumatic economic change, and features a range of fine performances, notably from Claire Dargo as Margaret Hale, Barbara Hockaday and Alexander Bean as Bessie and her trade unionist father Nicholas, and Deirdre Davis as the indomitable Mrs Thornton. And if Janys Chambers’s adaptation finally becomes too much of a jump-cut rush through the various encounters between Margaret and Thornton that lead to their final union, it still makes for a richly entertaining and satisfying piece of theatre; with a strong backbone of history and class politics to sustain our interest, long after the sweet glow of romance has faded.
In repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 25 September