Theatre: Rib-tickling trouble at mill

Hindle Wakes Royal Exchange Manchester
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The Independent Culture
AS THEY were saying before they were so rudely interrupted... Helena Kaut-Howson's production of Hindle Wakes was running at the Royal Exchange Theatre when the IRA blasted the centre of Manchester apart in 1996. So it is a fine symbolic gesture of defiance that the annulled show now bounces back to inaugurate the splendidly rebuilt and refurbished venue, which now boasts additional studio space.

It is all the more fitting because Stanley Houghton's 1912 comedy is set among the Lancashire cotton mill magnates who would have frequented this vast domed edifice, and the play itself turns on a spirited refusal to be intimidated.

Still looking like a bizarre arachnoid spaceship on a time-travel mission, the main theatre-in-the-round is much the same building-within-a-building that it was before. It is the enveloping ambience that has dramatically altered. Gone is the rather gloomy atmosphere of a cultural cathedral: the play now has the feel of a stylish, seductively lit, cultural mall. And, of course, conversation: this theatre must have one of the most expansive areas for interval milling and mulling in the world.

Despite being something of a period piece, Hindle Wakes continues to offer talking-points. A proto-feminist play, it explores the comic fall- out after the son of a cotton tycoon and Fanny Hawthorn, a head-strong mill lass, enjoy a dirty weekend in Llandudno. His parents are divided on what should be done. Played by Sue Johnston with a lovely mix of nouveau riche swank and mischievous humanity, the mother is determined that he will marry his well connected fiancee. All gritty integrity and underlying unease, his father (the excellent Ewan Hooper) is equally adamant that he will do the decent thing by Fanny, who is the daughter of an old work mate (the delightfully gentle Colin Prockter) from his pre-plutocratic days.

Houghton shows how, in the ludicrously labyrinthine deliberations that ensue, nobody thinks to consult the feelings of Claire Rushbrook's impressively forthright Fanny, who sits at an angle to everyone else, defiantly clad in her weaver's shawl. The play's attack on double standards extends, shockingly for the era, to Fanny's announcing that sex without love isn't a male preserve. If she was just a fling for him, what makes him think he was anything more for her?

I could have done without the little model mills and their smoking chimneys which surround the action. Nor could I work out why everything had been painted a ghostly shade of grey. But the warmth and conviction of the company are terrific, with a lanky, amusingly sheepish Pearce Quigley timing the naiveties and circumspect sincerities of the toff son in a surprising comic fashion.

Reinforcing the sense that it is an apt choice, the play sometimes seems to be alluding to the present celebratory circumstances. Certainly when the magnate's father declares that: "If it is the finest in Lancashire and Yorkshire then it goes without saying that it is the finest in England", the laughter had an understandably confident edge.

Paul Taylor