The Royal Exchange is currently celebrating its 30th Anniversary. What better way to start than bringing this Manchester-set production to the famous round stage.
"A Decent Life Will Kill Us All" says Elizabeth Gaskell's female protagonist and this sums up the whole feel of Mary Barton. Each character has something to honour but many have nothing by the dénouement. But never fear as Rona Munro's adaptation contains so much dry wit that you will not leave the theatre feeling as down as you may have feared.
Our heroine works in a dress shop in St Ann's Square, Manchester in the 1840s making gowns for the well to do daughters of the mill owners. By night she endeavours to join the rich women. But there are two men in her life which halts her rise to the top. One is a poor metal worker; the other is the son of a mill owner. Which one will she choose?
This may sound like a typical costume drama but there is so much narrative drive here that it is hard to categorise. Murder, romance and smatterings of comedy jostle for attention among the tragic scenes. Sarah Frankcom brings her usual high standard of direction to the stage but she uses so many unique devices that you really feel you are watching someone at the top of their game. She gives the piece a filmic quality, juxtaposing scenes which have similar meaning.
The large cast are all outstanding with many of them playing multiple roles.
Kellie Bright is centre stage throughout as the title character and she does not disappoint, conveying her character's many dilemmas with ease. Penny Layden plays her best friend Margaret beautifully, avoiding all the clichés of portraying someone with failing eyesight. Lucy Black's Esther is both plucky and tragic. William Ash's stooping, sorrowful Jem is heartbreaking. Scene stealer Hannah Storey has three small parts but you cannot take your eyes off her. Likewise Toby Sawyer plays two contrasting roles in a chameleon like way, keeping you gripped to the narrative.
Liz Ashcroft’s stone set is quite sparse but rich in detail. Also Richard G Jones excellent lighting design illuminates the high drama on display.
At times the play is slow. But minor quibble aside, this is a great start to the season. Happy 30th Birthday!