Writer: J.B. Priestley
Director: Barrie Rutter
Designer: Jessica Worrall
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Nearly a quarter of a century ago Northern Broadsides was founded on the premise of doing classical theatre, mostly, but not solely, Shakespeare, with a Northern voice and taking it to non-theatrical venues. The company is still doing that, but the scope has steadily enlarged to take in original plays, re-found gems and even mainstream Northern theatre.
Now Broadsides are happily at home with the archetypal West Riding comedy, When We Are Married, performed in the comfortably refurbished York Theatre Royal, Broadsides’ co-producers. Any Halifax-based company must feel at home in Cleckleywyke, J.B. Priestley’s invented wool-town. Barrie Rutter and his company are happy to play the text with wit and vitality, the only innovation a bit of song and dance at the end.
Like the slightly later An Inspector Calls, When We Are Married is set some 30 years before its first performance in 1938. Three couples, substantial figures in Cleckleywyke, are celebrating their Silver Weddings – except that it emerges that, owing to a technicality with the minister, they were not married at all! The first act finale – the production plays the first two acts of three before the interval – establishes that concealment is not an option; after that more and more people, some aware of the truth, pile into the Helliwells’ house, the action becomes increasingly farcical until a solution appears out of the blue.
All very straightforward, so what is so good about When We Are Married? And it is very good indeed. Priestley is sharply aware of the changes in people that suddenly losing their marital status can bring (lost or freed?). His affectionate satire of West Riding ways is spot-on: no one else could have written the dialogue about Lane End Chapel’s place in the community and the race for the first Messiah.
Most important of all is the characterisation. Every character is vividly drawn, the smallest parts in a cast of 14 still good acting parts. Henry Ormonroyd (Barrie Rutter), the Argus photographer slumping gradually into nostalgic inebriation, makes four appearances, none of them very long, but is totally memorable, as is Kat Rose-Martin as Ruby the maid, stomping around purposefully or reciting poetry dramatically or innocently (maybe) telling it how it is. Lisa Howard’s fiery Mrs, Northrop, torn between fury and mocking laughter, is another free spirit from the servants’ quarters.
And the central six are so cleverly drawn that we can see them both as a complacent snobbish unit and as well differentiated individuals. Mark Stratton’s self-satisfied Alderman Joseph Helliwell has a spark more fun about him than Adrian Hood’s speechifying Councillor Albert Parker who is appalled to discover, when truth time comes round, that he is widely seen as dull and stingy. Maria Helliwell (Geraldine Fitzgerald) has hints of vulnerability that Kate Anthony’s implacable Clara Soppitt would never entertain. Steve Huison and Sue Devaney make the most of the transformation scenes for the downtrodden Herbert Soppitt and the long-suffering and desperately bored Annie Parker.
Jessica Worrall provides a conventionally stylish set. It will be interesting to see how it changes in less orthodox venues. The colourful and characterful costumes, obviously, are here to stay.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Nobby Clark