He's a sly dog, our National Theatre boss. In the week the government announces big cuts in welfare spending which Guardian commentators predict will plunge us back into the 1930s, Nicholas Hytner programmes a half-forgotten play about...poverty in the 1930s. Not only that, but the play and the production are excellent. The choice of this family drama set in a Glasgow tenement (press night next Tuesday) as the NT's artistic contribution to the debate over the Comprehensive Spending Review is an inspired one.
Never having heard of the author or the play, I was in two minds about whether to buy a ticket. Then I discovered that the family in the play is named Morrison and the head of the household is John Morrison, so I felt that it would be disloyal to my Clydeside metal-bashing ancestors to stay away. (My grandfather John Morrison, a plater, was killed in a shipyard accident in 1942.) But I half-expected something that would be either dated, or sentimental, or preachy in a Left Book Club kind of way. I'm delighted to say all these expectations were dashed at Friday's preview. Ena Lamont Stewart's 1947 play runs for three hours and avoids all the predictable pitfalls of the social realist genre.
Her John Morrison (I'm also delighted to say) isn't a bad sort; he may be an unskilled labourer with only occasional jobs, but he's now 'TT' (teetotal) and loves his family, or thinks he does. But his male pride leaves his exhausted wife Maggie slaving from dawn to midnight in a dirty shabby flat which is rightly described by visitors as a 'midden'. Does he pick up a dishcloth or a broom to help? You bet he doesn't. And his patriarchal desire to control his 'wains' drives his daughter Jenny away with instructions never to return. Maggie has her weaknesses too; she has been so indulgent to her eldest boy Alec that he is a spoiled weakling whose doomed relationship with his hard-as-nails wife Isa brings a dangerous thread of sex and violence into the family home.
There's a small son with a nasty cough, a semi-senile granny, a bossy sister and sister-in-law and three gossipy women neighbours. The play weaves together their narratives with a dramatic skill that makes it seem extraordinary that this was the author's only hit play. If, as the programme suggests, she was deliberately ignored and excluded by the Scottish theatrical establishment of the day, then that's a huge shame. Half a century later, she would have become a star scriptwriter for Eastenders or Coronation Street. Her characters are the predecessors of the ones which arrived a generation later not just in television soaps but in the working class novels and plays of the 1960s. The play builds to an emotional climax which never tips over into melodrama or sentimentality; although the family has a glimpse of a better future, the final blackout falls on John with his head clasped in his hands, conscious of his failure as a father.
Lamont Stewart can't be compared to Arthur Miller; her play portrays the grim reality of poverty, with the family fighting over the last crust of bread and jam, but the wider intellectual, political and social issues that Miller confronted are missing. However in one respect, she's streets ahead of the (mostly male) playwrights of her generation. This is a feminist play in which the strongest characters are all women, held back by misguided deference to their men. The dialogue, with its salty Clydeside backchat between the women, shows that Lamont Stewart had an acute ear for words and a wonderful instinct for how to use them dramatically.
Josie Rourke (director of the excellent but tiny Bush Theatre) gets her first chance to direct at the National and carries it off triumphantly. Despite this play being in previews when I saw it, the thousand and one details were all in place and the timng was right to the nearest split second. No loose ends at all. I wondered beforehand how a play about a cramped tenement would work on the vast proscenium space of the Lyttelton stage, but Bunny Christie's set solves the problem ingeniously. The space is divided by a horizontal and vertical grid, leaving a central space for the Morrison family kitchen, with apartments above and below them partially visible. One one side there is a small bedroom and on the other, a communal staircase. There's a perfect balance between the glimpses of action elsewhere and the Morrison kitchen, which meticulously creates the sordid reality of the kind of world Orwell wrote about in The Road to Wigan Pier.
So what does this play tell us about welfare reform? Above all, like a trip to Africa, it adds a sense of perspective. Poverty is relative, and it's a posthumous insult to the generation that experienced the 1930s to suggest that we are returning to the same conditions again. We are no longer in a world where a family worries about whether to eat a single tin of beans today or tomorrow.
The large cast is uniformly excellent, though the Glasgow dialect left some members of the audience struggling. An American lady sitting behind me only seemed to understand occasional snatches and sounded a little bemused. 'Was it Glasgow? I thought it was Manchester,' she murmured. This play should be required viewing for MPs if their busy House of Commons schedule allows them to walk across the Thames to see it.