In 1939, the Mancunian artist Laurence Stephen Lowry painted ‘The Bedroom Pendlebury’, an empty, iron-ended bed in a bleak, beige room. For seven years, while working as a rent collector and painting upstairs after-hours, he’d cared for his bedridden mother in that room. Martyn Hesford’s doleful two-hander imagines their relationship of co-dependency.
It’s a dramatic staple: belligerent invalid mother and infantile carer son. The end result is always an uprising and, sure enough, as Lowry discovers his style, rejecting mum’s favourite dainty watercolours for the matchstick men and industrial chimneys that became his stock-in-trade, he also finds his voice.
Conventional though it is, Hesford has penned an absorbing little art history lesson. Michael Begley’s Lowry is gorgeous: beneath his meek exterior resides an impish spirit. He flicks playful, conspiratorial glances – almost suppressed giggles – our way. Those looks imply both the artist’s eye on the world, always at one remove, and a lonely soul in search of a playmate.
However, Hesford is relentlessly harsh on Mrs Lowry, who’s waspishly played by June Watson. Newly moved to Pendlebury, a suburb of Salford, she’s snobbish and solipsistic, but there’s next to no sympathy for the depressed widow beneath. ‘She did not understand my paintings,’ Lowry said after her death, ‘but she understood me and that was enough.’ Not here, she doesn’t.
What you end up with is too straightforward a picture and, for all that Abbey Wright’s production instils a brooding, stagnant melancholy, you can feel history’s creases being ironed out. One suspects Lowry, who claims to paint what he sees, would have resisted that urge.
By Matt Trueman