The National Theatre has been both shrewd and fortunate in its timing as it launches Josie Rourke's splendid revival of Men Should Weep in the wake of a comprehensive spending review that clobbers the poorest among us. Written in 1947, Ena Lamont Stewart's wonderfully rich but rarely performed play focuses on a Glaswegian family's struggle for survival during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was notably revived by 7:84 Company in Scotland in 1982 during the Thatcherite recession. Now, when one of the characters says "It's only rich folks can keep theirselves tae theirselves. Folk like us hev tae depend on their neighbours when they're needin' help," you wonder what price David Cameron's Big Society.
Not that Men Should Weep is even remotely grim agit-prop. It's more like a Scottish equivalent of Sean O'Casey in its juggling of tragedy and comedy, seriousness and irreverence. The working class aren't venerated simply for being the working class. This is a world that contains flint-hearted creatures like the sister-in-law greedy for Granny's pension; Granny, meanwhile, (excellent Anne Downie) is the kind of round-the-clock grumbler who, in a lovely moment of comedy, complains because her biscuit only has chocolate on one side.
The play's socialist leanings are largely implicit; it's Stewart's feminist inclinations that are to the fore, with the continual reminder that women are always left to do the dirty work. Sharon Small is deeply touching as Maggie, the mother of seven who battles to hold together her extended family (ranging from a loose-living teenage daughter to a TB-stricken toddler) in their tenement slum. Sensitively played by Robert Cavanah, her husband John can be tender and loving, but feels painfully emasculated because of his bouts of unemployment and compensates by asserting a man's immemorial right to be above domestic chores, even if his spouse is the breadwinner. He has a particularly anguished relationship with his estranged daughter, Jenny (Sarah MacRae), who has been driven, through shame at their poverty (for which she blames him), into the dubious arms of a sugar daddy.
Performed by a superbly marshalled cast, Rourke's production avoids any trace of melodrama, the actors revelling in the demotic poetry of the stingingly humorous Glaswegian dialect. I'm doubtful, though, about Bunny Christie's incongruously lavish set which, replete with stairwell, gives us a view of all the surrounding flats. With their rather fetching washed-out tones, these rooms looks like they're from the pages of World of Interiors.
If being privy to the domestic violence upstairs is a questionable artistic gain, it's certainly good to be able to keep tabs on the activities of the prying neighbours (hilariously played by Karen Dunbar, Lindy Whitford and Isabelle Whiteford). They are a joy in the Christmas tea scene, during which they take ages to acknowledge Maggie's new hat and where one of them, reminiscing about her first experience of the back row of the cinema, declares "I wis that excited I didna notice there was silver paper on my toffees till I was hauf-way through the poke."
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