Rona Munro’s stage adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel Mary Barton presents a panorama of Manchester life in Victorian England, from the mill owners’ new prosperity to the thousands of ordinary people living and dying in their factories. It was first performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, on 6 September 2006.
The action of the play takes place in Manchester in the 1840s. Mary Barton, a mill worker’s daughter, has been taken on as an apprentice in an upmarket dress shop making gowns for the daughters of the newly moneyed mill owners. Her father, John Barton, is active in the campaign for workers’ rights. Mary has been promised to her childhood friend, Jem, but becomes distracted by one of the mill owner’s sons, Harry Carson. Her aunt Esther, former mill worker turned prostitute, warns John about Mary’s behaviour, arguing that she too fell for a rich man when she was younger, with disastrous consequences. But Mary sees Carson as an opportunity to better herself and so is unprepared when she finds herself plunged into a maelstrom of murder, intrigue and romance.
The Royal Exchange premiere was directed by Sarah Frankcom and designed by Liz Ascroft. It was performed by Kellie Bright (as Mary Barton), Lucy Black, Roger Morlidge, Hannah Storey, William Ash, Will Tacey, Toby Sawyer, Christine Mackie, Penny Layden, David Sterne and Patrick Bridgman.