The set isn’t much to shout about in this production of When We Are Married, though perhaps the memory of the Garrick Theatre production in 2010, which elicited justified applause as soon as the curtain rose for its almost ridiculously elaborate Edwardian set, floor to ceiling in how-the-other-half-live opulence, is still very vivid. It all starts off painfully slowly, but once the show finds its feet, it builds and builds before reaching quite an exhilarating climax. It’s better that way around, I suppose, but I do wish the first half could somehow be closer to the standard of the second. After all, there is a decision to be made as to whether to return at the end of the interval.
Gerald Forbes (Luke Adamson) is the one to break the play’s bombshell revelation to three middle-aged couples, but, as a phrase attributed to Lord Heseltine puts it, “he who wields the sword, does not wear the crown”. Thus the first half sees an impressive performance from Mrs Northrop (Lisa Howard), who only really listens in on proceedings at first but gets much pleasure in seizing the opportunity to give her snobbish employer Maria Helliwell (Geraldine Fitzgerald) a taste of her own medicine.
As (almost) always with When We Are Married it is the bombastic Councillor Albert Parker (Adrian Hood) who dominates proceedings but, as tends to be the way with observational comedy dramas, if the man of the house rules, the lady of the house governs. In today’s world where ‘living in sin’ is largely a turn of phrase for cohabiting rather than a genuinely improper way for a couple to live, some of the societal norms in the play do not reflect contemporary values. But the show is all the more enjoyable for it, as the distancing effect created by the play being set in a previous generation allows audiences to sit back and observe proceedings comfortably.
Set in Yorkshire, the cast maintain their northern accents impeccably throughout, and I never had the feeling that these were actors versed in received pronunciation attempting a voice that might be broadly construed as coming from that place called The North. It is true that one or two Yorkshire phrases went over my head, but this had no bearing on the overall enjoyment of this robustly hilarious piece of theatre, still able to elicit laugh-out-loud laughter some decades after its first production in 1938.
Like the best of British comedies, there’s fun to be had in taking into consideration what isn’t said as well as what is, and the facial expressions on the three leading ladies, Maria, Annie (Sue Devaney) and Clara (Kate Anthony) are repeatedly pictures that paint a thousand words. Annie’s calm demeanour contrasted so well against Albert’s prone to yelling, alpha-male character. The stark difference is physical as well as psychological – Adrian Hood stands well over 6ft tall, and Sue Devaney is closer to 5ft than 6ft. It did take some time for me to differentiate the main six characters from one another. There isn’t, in the end, a character, however minor or major, whose purpose in being included in the narrative is unclear.
There are also wonderful supporting performances from Barrie Rutter as Henry Ormonroyd, and from Kat Rose-Martin as Ruby Birtle, the former a photographer and the latter the housemaid. Both are amusing and engaging, as is most of the show as a whole.
One of those shows where it’s clear that the cast are enjoying themselves on stage, this is a solid and confident production of a well-known play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Cleckleywyke, a town in the West Riding, 1908.
The Helliwells, the Parkers and the Soppitts are highly respected pillars of their community … but not for much longer.
Married on the same day in the same chapel, they gather to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. The celebrations are short-lived when they discover the vicar wasn’t licensed and they are actually not married. In fact, they have been living in sin for 25 years.
Watch with mounting glee as the pandemonium switches from horrified social embarrassment to the realisation that they are free from the shackles of long tedious marriages. Home truths are dealt, bullies get their retribution and the hen-pecked are hilariously and most satisfyingly liberated.
J B Priestley’s heartily entertaining northern comedy plays right into the hands of the remarkable Northern Broadsides – a company celebrated by audiences for its charisma, vitality and relish of language.
When We Are Married
Tuesday 11th October – Saturday 15th October 2016
By J B Priestley, directed by Barrie Rutter