Staged with the audience on four sides of the oblong Dorfman space at the National Theatre, there are three wall-less house set ups with a path weaving between them recreating the feel of a village. Two are positioned so that when the inhabitants 'go upstairs' they disappear up the steps between the audience. It's a simple idea that works well.
To get around the fact that those sat on the shorter sides of the oblong stage are much nearer to one household and not another, the audience swaps seats at the interval moving to those diagonally opposite.
The setting is a mining village in the East Midlands and the women of the three households are all married to miners. Anne-Marie Duff plays Mrs Holroyd whose husband Charlie (Martin Marquez) is drunk, abusive and brings home women he's picked up at the pub. Blackmore, an educated man and electrician at the pit has feelings for her.
Louise Brealey plays Minnie, a women who has married Luther (Joe Armstrong) a man who is below her in social standing and financial status. (Great to see them working together again following on from Constellations earlier this year). There is friction between husband and wife with Minnie struggling to adjust to life in the pit village and Luther resentful of the money she has. It is Luther's brother Joe (Matthew Barker) who tries to placate the couple, he still lives at home but harbours an ambition to seek a new life in Australia.
Julia Ford is another Mrs who has married beneath her and has grown distant from her course and verbally brutish husband. Instead she dotes on her student son Ernest (Johnny Gibbon) but he is growing independent, and forging an attachment with a girl his mother dislikes.
In combining the three plays you get a heightened sense of the tragic elements of these women's lives, the entrapment of marriage in a patriarchal society, regret of a wrong choice, repressed emotion and sense of duty. It is understandable that affections become refocused on their children, an affection that can be smothering and destructive in itself. There are shades of DH Lawrence's novels, particularly Sons and Lovers.
You get a sense of a lot going on within each household but sometimes the action skips on a little too quickly, always the danger when you combine three stories into one. It is also easier to engage when the action is right under your nose. While one household is under the spotlight, there is sometimes activity, day-to-day chores, going on in the others which can be a little distracting if it is happening nearest to you. Never underestimate the hypnotic effect of watching someone folding laundry, setting a table and washing up. It also adds both a physicality and a sense of place and purpose; the women constantly battling against the dirt, grime and sweat of the pit, their husbands walking into their tidy, clean homes black and shiny with coal dust and hard labour.
The net effect is a production that feels slow at times and too fast at others. With so much detail you find yourself grasping certain stories more firmly than others. It is a testament to the skill of the actors in delivering great performances when their story lines are so fragmented, overlapping only very occasionally.
This was an early preview so the pacing may even out. Husbands and Sons certainly has the feeling of an epic undertaking executed in a very down to earth way which is fitting with the stories. The jury is still out on the merit of combining these three plays, whether the combination makes for a more powerful piece of theatre or dilutes the effect of each.
Husbands and Sons is three hours including an interval and runs in rep at the National's Dorfman Theatre until February 10.
Anne-Marie Duff, who said in an interview she has a 'talent crush' on Mr was in Suffragette with him.