Gritty, grim and almost unremittingly dour, Oxford Stage Company's production of Men Should Weep feels like a theatrical version of Eastenders, transferred to the Glasgow Gorbals in the depression years of the 1930s.
In a cramped tenement flat, which everyone from the neighbours to her older children refers to as a midden (but which is quite patently not), house-proud Maggie Morrison is bringing up seven children, minding a feckless but teetotal, out-of-work husband and his senile mother, working at two jobs and keeping hold of her pride.
Under Charlotte Gwinner’s direction, Ena Lamont Stewart's play has attained a strange mixture of romanticism and realism. Pauline Turner as Maggie provides a rose-tinted view of heroic female struggle. There is even a deal of humour there, in the form of well-turned insults and pointed observations from the deliciously acerbic tongues of Lynne McCallum and Anne Lacey as Maggie's neighbours. And despite the troubles which every other character in the twelve-strong cast heaps upon her, there is a purity about Maggie. She is doing the right thing, even if she will suffer for it.
Yet Gwinner also finds the realism. It spreads out from the dark depression of Paul Lambert as husband John: a man almost broken by the shame of being unable to find work, but too dim to see that being teetotal and loving his wife is no good if he isn't going to lift a finger to help her. It's there in the performances of Susan Harrison and Ross Finbow as their near starving younger children Edie and Ernie, gulping down "jeely pieces", yet still bringing a childish vibrancy to the stage.
Much of the rest, however, is pure melodrama. The difficulty with this production is that it fails to use the poetry of Stewart's language to give it a dynamic, and instead becomes bogged down by a series of poorly spoken accents from actors who do not appear to understand what they are saying. What should be smooth becomes clunky, so that instead of Maggie's ever-increasing troubles colouring what is seen on stage, they become the focus of events.
That said, there are plenty of strong moments. Jennifer Piercey is almost cruelly accurate in her observation of Granny, while the more intimate moments between Maggie and Joanne Howarth as her sister Lily really do begin to get to the point of what this should be about.