Set in 1912, when the women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum and notoriety, Hindle Wakes introduces a confident, independent heroine determined to have her own voice in a world of oppressive convention. This extraordinary piece at the Finborough Theatre leaves every 2012 audience member wishing they had half of Fanny Hawthorn’s wit and a quarter of her cojones.
After a dirty weekend away, weaver Fanny (Ellie Turner) and mill owner’s son Alan (Graham O’Mara) are caught out by their parents and presented with only one option: to do the decent thing and marry. Unsurprisingly Alan’s strong backbone is easily snapped by the threat of disinheritance, but Fanny proves to be made of sterner stuff.
Teenagers, evidently, have been truculent throughout the ages, and the excellent scenes between the culprits and their scandalised parents feel as modern as an episode of a favourite soap. Ellie Turner snaps out some fabulous lines as whip-smart Fanny, while Susan Penhaligon as Mrs Jeffcote only has to purse her lips to elicit delighted laughter, perfectly capturing the horror of the nouveau riche at seeing their children marry beneath them. Husbands Christopher (Peter Ellis) and Nat (Richard Durden) are entertainingly browbeaten by their determined wives and, through connivance or providence, it is always the women who get their own way.
The joy of seeing raw, full-blooded feminism in a hundred year old piece is like that of hearing your grandparents swear: you know it must have happened, but being confronted by it in all its straight-talking glory sends you squirming with glee. Fanny’s artless use of Alan’s own words against him, describing him as “an amusement – a lark”, is one in the eye for every literary libertine and revenge for every Tess of the D’Urbevilles defiled by the lord of the manor. The pace is fast and director Bethan Dear keeps her focus on the inherent humour of human folly, drawing out every hypocrisy and double standard and holding it up for scrutiny.
Even in these permissive times, the controversy that must have surrounded the play when originally performed in 1912 is clear, and it is impossible to watch without feeling profound respect for playwright Stanley Houghton and the message he conveys.