It was called Hot Lane, I suppose, because of the kilns. But the heat is ‘on’ in Deborah McAndrew’s latest period drama because of the scandal. Why has a long-gone war widow suddenly returned and who is the father of her child?
Edith was born in the slums of industrial Hot Lane, by the Warham family’s Burslem pottery. Living in the shadow of the factory, the best way to better herself was to marry into that family. But her husband was killed a decade ago in the war and she moved away, not knowing she had fallen pregnant whilst he was at The Front.
It’s a great set up – compounded by the fact that the head of the family, Richard Warham, is terminally ill and looking for an heir for the business.
This may not be the most startling of McAndrew’s recent plays, but it is plotted with the precision of a JB Priestley classic…with a pinch of early black and white Coronation Street spice. Her characters are passionate and full-bodied…their stories intertwining like a cross-stitch pattern. There are regular surprises and no shortage of local nostalgia for the Potteries audience.
We begin in the chandeliered Burslem Queen’s Hall on dance night, where the Claybody Community Company are doing the latest routines to 1950s crooners. But the six professional actors are already establishing their intricate storylines – with a slapped face here and a glad eye there.
The play resolves itself into two domestic settings; the Warham’s starchy residence and the humble home of the neighbourhood angel, Frances Berry…who specialises in taking in damsels in distress …. pregnant or otherwise. And so the audience is set to work, piecing together the past, like solving a murder mystery … but without the murder… and wondering who will live happily ever after.
There are fine, committed performances from all concerned. Angela Bain is excellent at keeping her character, Frances, just half a step ahead of the storyline … with some knowing looks and the odd gentle “aha!”. Andy Cryer’s doctor clearly expresses the mental pain of being on the horns of several simultaneous dilemmas…whilst being determinedly faithful to his hypocritic oath. Emily Pithon, as the once wayward Edith, bears the memories of her previous misdemeanours with upright dignity. Matthew Jones and Madeleine Gray inject some welcome humour with their off-on lovers’ tiff and Alison Darling, as Agnes Warham, is slightly sinister as she pursues her own secretive agenda.
The whole cast takes McAndrews’ well-crafted script and sensitively enhances it; adding more than enough nuance to keep the close-quarters audience on a tight rein.
It’s a totally engaging and deeply absorbing 90 minutes – and I could have done with more. One tragic storyline in particular (and perhaps the most distressing) remains unresolved…as if the writer simply ran out of ink. But the warmth of the old Hot Lane community fills the former Spode works with the milk of human kindness and the sourness of our frailties. The industry may have moved on, but we are just the same.