Revived now in John Dove's meticulous production at Hampstead, London, the play fixes on an Oedipal situation very like that in the author's great novel Sons and Lovers, which appeared four years later. A refined, declassee mother (Barbara Jefford) has transferred her emotional needs from her brutish miner husband to her sensitive student son, Ernest, resulting in a similar churning rivalry between the mother and Maggie, his shy, inhibited girlfriend, whose blushes, adoring looks and little nervous gasps of laughter are both hilariously and touchingly signalled by Kate Ashfield.
Left alone with his girl, Dominic Rowan's excellent Ernest lets you see the passionate romantic, hapless would-be lover and comic prig in this callow youth whose idea of courting is to read out poems by Baudelaire and to react with jocular exasperation to Maggie's French irregular verbs. This is a very amusing sequence, even if I'm not sure Lawrence meant us to respond with quite such scornful glee as the first- night audience did to Ernest's description of the Baudelaire as 'like oranges falling and rolling a little way down a dark-blue carpet'. It shows, though, one of the advantages of his plays over his novels. With the action unmediated by Lawrence's hectoring, insistent, utterly distinctive authorial voice, you're in a better position to make up your own mind.
Painfully wrapped up in each other, the young pair allow the bread the mother has left baking in the oven to burn. She chooses to interpret this negligence as a mark of emotional betrayal, and in a climactic confrontation blackmails her son into a fresh acknowledgement that it is she who comes first in his heart. Jefford excels here as a mother whose arts of domination are quietly pervasive. I felt, though, that the undercurrents in the vicious circle relationship with her husband were not as powerfully captured, partly because Edward Peel's strapping, virile miner never convinces you of the extent to which his family's scorn has emasculated him and mortally wounded his self-esteem.
The production is performed on a gleaming cottage reconstruction that you fancy should be sold off to English Heritage the moment the run finishes. Everything, though, has a properly lived-in feel, the cast is generally excellent, with Sophie Stanton wonderful as the sort of tittering tease all young men dread.
And the pacing is finely sensitive to Lawrence's formal audacity - the way the piece is prepared to relax and find room for humorous little sequences, such as when Ernest demonstrates his new fountain pen to the awe of his dad's miner friends, or when the mother, daughter and chum, standing with the musing expressions of real connoisseurs, try the posh pine kernels she's bought in an effort to keep up with the son's fancier ways. Striking you as slightly odd-ball bonuses, these moments testify to the benign inclusiveness of Lawrence's art.
To 31 July at Hampstead Theatre, NW3 (Booking: 071-722-9301)
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