Press night for a new production of Love on the Dole, Ronald Gow’s adaptation of the Thirties literary classic, came with appropriate news symbolism – a story hugely popular among the poor and dispossessed of the Depression revived on the day signs of a looming global repeat became harder to ignore.
But it quickly became clear that this is a play, and a production, with much more than timeliness going for it. It’s a gripping, human drama, and most of the melodrama comes from the all too genuine drama of the desperate poverty of 1930s Salford: “Every week sees another hundred out of work.” (And if the portly pseudo-capitalist – in fact just a low-rate bookmaker sucking the blood of the poorest of the poor – is a caricature, he’s an enjoyably horrible but appropriate one.)
Although this is an apparently male-dominated society, it’s the women who hold it together, and so it’s just that the character at the centre of the story is Sally Hardcastle (Emily Dobbs), the young and beautiful working class lass who’s in love with Larry Meath (Carl Prekopp), the dirt-poor but passionate, self-educated political agitator. Hanging around, however, is the obnoxious bookmaker Sam Grundy, who fancies having her as his “housekeeper”.
You couldn’t say there’s suspense; that this is a story never destined to end well is written on the rusting grate and tattered tablecloth of the ultra-realist set. But you’re very quickly rooting for these characters, particularly Sally (spectacularly well played by Dobbs).
It isn’t, however, all misery – you’re also laughing at, and sometimes with, the weary, gin-fueled lines of the three crone chorus – fortuneteller Mrs Jike (Colette Kelly), clinging-to-respectability soak Mrs Dorbell (Liz Bagley), and resigned, good-hearted realist Mrs Bill (Janie Booth). Often on the fringe you’ll find young actors trying to play characters much their elder, but these three experienced actors deliver a quality and comic timing seldom found in the inexperienced, and almost steal the show.
Overall it’s a fine, ensemble performance, even if the accents wobble north, south and mostly comfortably back to received pronunciation. But the real star is the story, and the tiight, gripping script. There’s elements resonating far more seven decades after the words were written than Walter Greenwood could have imagined, suggesting that in poor northern towns, the misery is often be timeless, a story on endless repeat. “I wish I were a footballer or something like that,” is the male escape fantasy. An older woman, advocating what today is called the WAGs lifestyle says: “I’d never turn me nose up at a fat belly, so long as it has a gold chain hanging on it.”
Criticisms? Well this really is too big a production for this tiny space (in which you really wish some fine benefactor would turn up to complete the airconditioning appeal quickly). It’s clearly seeking a transfer to a bigger theatre, in which the milling cloud scenes would be more effective.
And the set really doesn’t work for the critical outdoor scene – making an old fuel stove a mountaintop is a leap beyond the plausible. And whatever happened to the smoking ban? I can appreciate the nastiness of an overdressed man puffing a cigar perfectly well without actually getting the smoke in my face.
Such quibbles aside, however, this is a production that deserves that transfer to a bigger venue for a longer run. And whether that happens or not, every Mail, Telegraph and Sky journalist now writing scornfully about “dole scroungers” or “benefit cheats” should be forced to see this production – perhaps with the benefit of historical perspective they might be able to see the human tragedy behind their throwaway populist lines.
The production continues at the Finborough Theare until October 2.