Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Means test, marriage and misery

When shall we three meet again . . . Jean Hulme as Mrs Dorbell, Ann Hickman as Mrs Jike and Carol Ashby as Mrs Bull

Love on the Dole

Hall Green Little Theatre


SALFORD, cheek by jowl with Manchester, was the setting for Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice in the 1880s and 50 years later another of the city’s famous sons Walter Greenwood, wrote about it in Love on the Dole in 1933.

His novel about the grinding poverty of the 1930’s depression, is set in the Hanky Park area of Pendleton where Greenwood was born, an area which in less than a hundred years had gone to fields and orchards to steam powered mills and slums crammed with low paid workers with little or no employment protection, dole of 15 bob a week (75p) which could be stopped an the slightest excuse and poor relief for the destitute at five bob a week (25p).

When the great depression hit, unemployment, already high,  soared. Poverty became a way of life with people homeless and starving.

It was into that world that Greenwood introduced the Hardcastle family brought to the stage, at Manchester Rep, in 1934 by Raymond Gow. Two touring versions of the play criss-crossed the country, appearing in cinemas in towns with no theatre, and by the end of 1935 upwards of a million people had seen it.

With the welfare state its impact has lessened today and the life of poverty and deprivation has become historical rather than contemporary but this Hall Green production brings that history to life in a fine production.

Having been born and brought up within 10 miles of Hanky Park it was easy to detect some of the accents were a little awry but to a non-Lancastrian they would be passable Northern tones, helped by South East Lanky words such as Skrykin (crying and moaning) and Clem (starve).

Colette Hampton as Sally Hardcastle is our heroine in all this, in work she ends up keeping her entire family with brother Harry, played with boyish enthusiasm by Ryan Knight, and father, played with a humourless mix of shame and scowl by Richard Woodward, both out of work.

Mrs Hardcastle, played with a worried frown by Mandy Yeomans, takes in washing to help out finances and keeps all the money, including her husband’s  pay packet when he was working, handed over unopened, in separate containers for separate bills, on a shelf over the range.

Colette Hampton as Sally whose dreams are slowly crushed under the weight of poverty

Hampton allows us to see Sally grow, or perhaps, more accurately, see her ground down from the young, idealistic girl, in love with political agitator Larry Meath, dreaming of a bright future, to the cynical good-time, or hopefully  bit-better-time girl at the end.

Her fiancée is dead, every penny she earns vanishes into keeping her parents and brother, she has nothing to show for her labour and the offer of housekeeper to rich and repulsive illegal bookie Sam Grundy, played with suitable paunch and arrogance by Matt Ludlum, seems a more attractive offer.

She is told it is her own bed she is making and she will have to lie on it, probably literally as part of the job in this case, but at least it will be a comfortable bed with clean sheets, and she will be well paid for her trouble with jobs for her father and brother at the local bus depot thrown in.

It is a last resort and the audience, if not her family, know it. As she says: “Love at the pictures is all right but love on the dole is not the same thing”.

Larry, played with a sort of student revolutionary zeal by Callum Davies, was fated from the start. He obviously was suffering from the consumption which was was endemic amid the unsanitary, damp housing, he had unwittingly run foul of the powerful Grundy by being the fiancé of Sally, and his luck, if he actually had any beyond Sally, finally ran out as he was trying to protect a march by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement as they marched to Salford Town Hall to present a petition to the council about the means test and cuts in the dole.

The police waded in attacking and arresting as they went. Similar police brutality around the country ended with the formation of the National Council for Civil Liberties when 75 workers were seriously injured at a demonstration in London. Problems for the Hardcastles were never ending though. Harry had managed to get his girlfriend Helen, played with a quiet subservience by Rachel Louise Pickard, pregnant.

Morality was strong in working class Hanky Park, no hanky panky there, so her family threw her out and when Harry was banished as well, with no job and no dole, he and Helen and his new baby were reduced to the workhouse. Harry had a great line in chat-up though – “You’re not exactly Greta Garbo but you’ll do.”

Bringing some light relief to the play are the three old biddies who seem to spend their lives supping gin and gossiping. Interfering when they can, relaying any local scandal or tittle tattle, filling in the gaps with little more than imagination when necessary.

Richard Woodward, last seen as the lodger in The Birthday Party, as the gruff Mr Hardcastle trying to remain master of his own crumbling house.

Mrs Bull, Carol Ashby, Mrs Dorbell, Jean Hulme and Mrs Jike, part-time tea leaf reader, spiritualist and medium, played by Ann Hickman, are a delight. A bit like Thora Hird and her tea swilling cronies in Last of the Summer Wine, they have an opinion on everything with such observations as “A woman isn’t a woman until she’s been in childbirth 10 times, not counting miscarriages”. They put enough oars in to leave any conversation looking like a Roman galley!

Roy Palmer’s direction keeps what can be a slow moving play, marching along at a decent pace and his use of four stage blocks provides both interest and an imaginative start as an empty stage is suddenly populated by the entire cast of 15 bringing in the set.

And what a set. Theatre is about magic, smoke and mirrors, and Palmer has managed a set which looks and feels authentic down to a dolly tub and dollies, an old copper boiler in a brick housing (Palmer is not the king of polystyrene for nothing) and a huge cast iron black leaded grate and range.

We even have a Belfast sink with working antique taps and a guzunder sitting in the corner.

Turn them around and we have a plain brick wall broken by a window complete with a donkey stoned sill and even a back passage between back to backs to lurk in.

Costumes, courtesy of Jean Wilde and Carmen Burkett again look authentic all adding to what is an excellent production of an important and, in its time, influential play. To 05-04-14.

Roger Clarke

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