It’s general election year, the economy is reeling from the cost and shame of an unpopular war, development of radical new technology has made experienced workers too expensive to employ, and depressed wage rates for the rest. Strikes and confrontations between management and unions have become the order of the day …

But this is not Brown’s broken Britain, it’s Lancashire in 1820 when the devastating war was with Napoleon and the technology which has turned the cotton industry on its head is Arkwright’s Spinning Jenny, and the steam-mechanisation of the weaving sheds which forced weavers away from home handlooms and into purpose-built mills for the first time.

Ironically, this mechanisation ushered in an era of prosperity for the county right up until the Second World War when it was said that Britain’s bread hangs by Lancashire’s thread but in Tim Newns’ illuminating and enthralling production of Harold Brighouse’s rarely-performed play The Northerners that’s not how the cotton workers see it, threatening to emulate the Luddites in breaking the machinery which has replaced so many of their jobs and burning down the factories which provide their livelihood.

Strong performances set the tone, and Peter Broome’s honest weaver and William Maxwell’s mill owner as well as Louise Yates as the weaver’s wife all have the ring of absolute truth in their delivery which underpins the success of the production, since it is played out on the wrapped set of another play with only minimal furniture and props to set the scene.

Brighouse wrote The Northerners only a year before his most famous and successful play Hobson’s Choice and in the pivotal character of Ruth, the weaver’s daughter who has to balance her emotional attraction to a factory firebrand and the mill owner’s son, he tests the manipulative abilities and emancipated determination which later emerge in the forthright Maggie Hobson. It’s a difficult role which is not entirely sketched out by the dialogue but Stephanie Thomas makes the best of the material.

There are some equally fine performances in the supporting cast, particularly John Rawnsley, Dickensian-perfect as the rival mill owner, and Adam Stevens who I wished had been give more to say as union organiser Joseph Healey. Despite the age of the piece and the fact it hasn’t been professionally produced more than three times in a hundred years, it holds up extremely well – not as fluently scripted as a Priestley or a Shaw, but there was only one ‘Wallace and Gromit’ moment when the soldiers discover how the mill-workers have staged their flaming-torch protest which interrupted the audience’s intense concentration.

The Northerners plays at the Finborough theatre for only eight performances, on Sunday and Monday nights, but it really should be touring schools and colleges because it both entertains and informs about a pioneering period in our social history.

Runs until 19th April

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.