The play is about Mrs. Holroyd's life as a mother of two young children and a wife of a drunk (Charles Holroyd) in a run down shack in the middle of a coal-mining town. She has recently inherited some money from her uncle and starts having reciprocal feelings toward another man, Mr. Blackmore (or as a tipsy Firth calls him, "Mr. Blackymore"), who obviously loves her and often comes over to help with chores. She becomes fed up with her husband's drunk antics and is pressured by Mr. Blackmore to leave Charles and run away with the children to start a new life with him.
Sound happy so far? Ya, it's rather depressing. BUT, the performances are where this play shines.
Zoe Wanamaker does an excellent job portraying a verbally (and physically, as the play implies) abused wife who is on the verge of leaving her husband. Stephen Dillane is amazing as the lover - he gives an intensely realistic performance of someone who is fully in love. Wanamaker and Dillane's interactions are gripping and had me actually tense with anticipation to see how she would react to his attraction to her.
Colin Firth doesn't disappoint as the drunk husband, although Pride and Prejudice fans might be shocked into realizing that Firth DOES do other characters besides the quintessential stuffy English gentleman (yes girls, he's actually a fantastically trained classical actor - not just a dripping white shirt sex symbol). His disheveled hair and bushy mustache make him almost unrecognizable, and his accent is extremely thick (which adds to his overall disheveled condition). He is always either tipsy or on the floor, but still must convey his side of the story through his progressively drunk demeanor.
At first, I didn't understand the point of this play, but upon closer inspection, I realized it was actually more about a lack of communication and a forgotten love than anything else. Mrs. Holroyd has all but given up on her drunken husband. Meanwhile, although mostly incoherently drunk, Firth uses his trademark eyes and twitch of the face to show that Charles Holroyd is almost apologetic in some scenes which leads the audience into believing that Charles was once a good man. Although the beginnings of his alcoholism is never elucidated (so we don't know who drove who to do what), he is slowly sinking into a hopeless realization that his wife is in love with another man (and you can't help but think that his realization of his wife's attraction to another man has played a part in his drinking problem by creating a positive feedback loop). After the events of the play, Mrs. Holroyd remembers this "good" side of her husband and the reason why she married him.
With such great performances and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the set, I felt like I was really in a London theater watching three of my favorite actors perform on stage. If you're expecting to see amazing period sets and awesome camera angles that Masterpiece Theater is known for, then you will definitely be disappointed by this. BUT, if you're watching for the sake of a character drama (which is really the only reason they even made the BBC Performance videos), then you will be quite pleased.
It definitely helps to watch this one more than once though. The subtle nuances of Colin Firth and Stephen Dillane's performances can then be better understood and the point of the play will be revealed.