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Theatre Review: The hell that is poverty

Love On The Dole by Ronald Gow and Walter Greenwood. National Theatre.

I remember my mother telling about Love on the Dole when I was growing up in Manchester. Walter Greenwood had pitched his novel about the evils of unemployment, and the grinding poverty that is its inevitable accompaniment, in Hanky Park in Salford. The family home was still in Salford, close to Hankinson Park where Greenwood was born, and when I read the novel as a young man there were still dozens of Hanky Parks in the grimy old town: the night school I attended three times a week was close by one such example; Lowry used others as the subject material of his paintings; and Granada TV identified and tarted up another which became Coronation Street. But until a few weeks ago I had never seen Ronald Gow's play of Greenwood's novel. It was revelation.

Throughout the year, under the banner of NT 2000, the National has been "charting and celebrating the progress of drama through the 20th century, as represented by 100 plays". In the main these celebrations have been, regrettably, modest in nature, typically consisting of a couple of extracts from the chosen play, and conversations perhaps involving the author and original cast members. But now three plays which had proved popular earlier in the series, and which had never been produced at the National, had been chosen for "full readings" on the stage of the Lyttleton. Love on the Dole was one of these.

I confess I was unprepared for the impact of Greenwood and Gow's play. With only a few props and with scripts to hand the cast quickly transported us to the early 1930s and to events which on the one hand appeared as though through the mists of time, and yet on the other seemed achingly familiar. "Aw, God, just let me get a job," pleads Mr Hardcastle, with furniture pawned and his daughter about to sell herself as a prostitute. And later in total despair, as he dropped to his knees and beat the floor in helpless frustration, crying "God, gimme a job," I couldn't but remember Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff, and Yosser's plaintive catechism which somehow summed up the 1980s, "Gissa job, Mister. Gissa job."

It says much for the power of the play that actors like Alison Steadman and Jack Ellis, Kathy Staff and Julie Legrand, were prepared to invest time, energy, and commitment in a single performance on a wet Monday evening. A couple of weeks later when I returned to the National to buy a copy of the script I discovered that the man at the cash desk had taken a small part in the production. He told me that the actors had been amazed at the impact of the play on both themselves and the audience. "We could see that people were clearly moved by the reading, as we were ourselves."

Love on the Dole may be belittled because it was written as a novel rather than as a play, but on the evidence of this reading it is one of the most important pieces of drama of the century. Its authenticity is clear. Its characters are real, and their concerns are our concerns. It speaks to people because it paints a picture of life as it is; life as it will continue for as long as the mechanics of capitalism hold sway, and periodically determine that countless millions of people will be thrown on the dole.

And one final note. Not for the first time the programme is revealing. First performed in 1934, by the end of the following year Love on the Dole had been seen by more than one million people on stages up and down the country. But the British Board of Film Censors would not allow "this very sordid story in very sordid surroundings" to be filmed in the 1930s. Two years after the Board reached its decision the same members of the working class whose sordid story had been so powerfully described in Love on the Dole, but seen as unsuitable for filming, were being invited to volunteer to fight in the Second World War—in defence of freedom and democracy, of course.

MICHAEL GILL