Men Should Weep - review

Lyttelton, London

Ena Lamont Stewart's remarkable play was a big hit at Glasgow Unity in 1947, famously revived on the Edinburgh fringe in 1982, and now it gets an equally loving revival by Josie Rourke at the National. Rightly so: this play, set in a Glasgow tenement in the 1930s, reminds us what economic hardship really means, and yet has an ebullience that suggests a Scottish O'Casey.

There had been plays about working-class life before Lamont Stewart's. What makes hers unusual is she views the subject from a woman's perspective. Her heroine, Maggie Morrison, nourishes a brood of children, an ailing mother-in-law and a jobless husband. And her troubles multiply. Her youngest son is taken to hospital. Her eldest son, Alec, returns home with his termagant wife when their house collapses. And her flighty grown-up daughter, Jenny, stalks out of what she terms a "midden" to seek a better life. As she camps out nightly on the living-room floor, Maggie wanly remarks "I have na been in a bed since I was in maternity with Marina."

Yet what makes this a fine play is that Lamont Stewart neither sentimentalises Maggie nor treats working-class life as unrelievedly grim. Maggie herself may be tough, but she is capable of bursts of bilious anger. And, although Maggie's husband says "all we've done wrong is to be born into poverty", the play is filled with a wild humour.

Lamont Stewart creates a host of characters: a prim sister who views all men as "dirty beasts", the mother-in-law who moans that her biscuit has chocolate only on one side, and prying neighbours who might have wondered in from Juno and the Paycock.

Rourke and her dazzling designer, Bunny Christie, also treat the play as a tenement symphony in which we are reminded that the Morrison menage is only part of the larger picture: we get a Rear Window-like perspective on the whole block in which we see glimpses of all the adjacent lives.

And, if it takes time to tune in to the Glasgow dialect, the acting is uniformly superb. Sharon Small as the indomitable Maggie, Robert Cavanah as her ineffectual husband, Morven Christie as their hard-hearted daughter-in-law, and Anne Downie as the grumbling old woman inhabit this cluttered world as if it is their natural terrain.

This remains a landmark play in British drama; and, if men should weep, it is because Lamont Stewart was discouraged from ever writing a successor to a work that blends such indignation with theatrical exuberance.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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