The noted author John Harding has written biographies of Billy Meredith, Jack 'Kid' Berg, and most recently the brilliant and highly acclaimed, Sweetly Sings The Donkey, the life and works of Salford playwright, Shelagh Delaney.
In his latest book, John has chronicled the history of the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, founded by Annie Horniman in 1907 as an answer to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin which at the time was producing works by such playwrights as Yeats, Lady Gregory, Moore, Martyn, Padraic Colum, George Bernard Shaw and Synge.
Horniman threw down a challenge to Lancashire playwrights to rival their work, and out of this challenge the school known as the Manchester Playwrights was born. This included such luminaries as Stanley Houghton, Harold Brighouse and Allan Monkhouse.
With such formidable writers the Gaiety soon became the most progressive theatre in the country, the first of its kind to create an identifiably local school of playwrighting. As Tony Wilson famously said, "This is Manchester, we do things differently here".
Dipping into this fabulously researched book I was fascinated to read how shocking some of these productions were considered at the time. Take for example, Hindle Wakes by Stanley Houghton. The play concerns a young mill girl, Fanny Hawthorn, whose weekend away unravels in tragedy as it is revealed she had spent a proverbial 'dirty weekend' with a the son of a local rich mill owner.
This was in 1912 when such behaviour was certainly frowned upon. However, Fanny isn't one to conform and tells her lover that basically they'd had their fun, it was over and more importantly doesn't want or need his riches; she can make her way through the world on her own. A great example of early sexual equality. Incidentally, when a film was made of the play a lot of the scenes were shot at Monton Mill and the canal side nearby.
We all know Hobson's Choice, which finishes its run at Salford Arts Theatre tonight. Written by Eccles born Harold Brighouse, the play tells of headstrong Maggie Hobson, a woman with plenty of fire in her soul who chooses Sam Mossop as her husband; a man considered to be much lower than her on the social scale, and once again we see strong independent women at the fore.
Did you know that when the 1954 film was premiered it was shown at The Broadway Cinema, Eccles? I only learnt that from reading this marvellous book.
Staging Life offers so much and it is a pleasure to read. My eyes were opened at the wealth of talent in the area and it's a fabulous insight to the world of repertory theatre and the pleasures and pitfalls that go with it.
I can honestly recommend this book to anybody with a love of both theatre and local history. John Harding has done a marvellous job with his research and photographs that adorn the book. I doff my cap to him. It's an essential read.
Staging Life: The Story of the Manchester Playwrights
By John Harding
£18.99 available from Greenwich Exchange www.greenex.co.uk
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Just answer this simple question: Who played Henry Hobson in the 1954 film classic Hobson's Choice?
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Review by Tony Flynn