Writer: J.B Priestley
Director: Barrie Rutter
Reviewer: Carol Lovatt
J B Priestley’s When We Are Married is a comic masterpiece and a wry observation on the joys and perils of that great institution, marriage. Most famed for the classic An Inspector Calls, Priestly proved in his time that he was a maestro of wide ability in his capacity to dramatise both despair and intrigue but also laughter and frivolity, in his repertoire of work. The play When We Are Married is definitely in the latter category as it is full to the brim of laugh out loud moments.
Set in 1908, it tells the story of three couples who were all married on the same day by the same clergyman and in the same chapel, and who have come together to celebrate their silver anniversary. Unfortunately, it turns out that they are not really married at all and in prim and proper Edwardian society, this is a revelation with a seismic fallout and one which proves both hilariously funny and touching insightful to boot.
As a Northern Broadsides production directed by Barrie Rutter, When We Are Married is a feast of Yorkshire dialect and no-nonsense, straight-talking authenticity. Priestley himself was a Yorkshireman born and bred and his recollections of his early life in West Riding and the mannerisms of the folk he was surrounded by are all beautifully weaved into the fabric of this play. The Helliwells, Parkers and Soppitts, being the three couples in question, and the employees they engage, are depicted in the farcical but somewhat accurate manner of their time and circumstances.
Edwardian society was one based on working class aspiration where things such as pomposity, class, snobbery and hypocrisy were all embedded and to make a good marriage or achieve in public service were things valued and respected. It was a time when the trades were allowing people to have a level of social mobility and to aspire and succeed in the community was considered to be of utmost importance, if you were in a position to do so. The play is interesting because it sheds a light on the reality that all that glitters is not necessarily gold and that a good marriage may seem desirable but it may also be just a gilded cage as many couples have come to learn.
A real joy to observe in this production is the interplay between the classes. Still very much prevalent in Edwardian society, the gulf between the ladies of the community and the women who serve them is so amusingly portrayed and cleverly observed in the cutting and frank dialogue between maid and mistress. Of course, the ‘“ladies” in When We Are Married can also be categorised as the nouveau riche where, in fact, the gulf is far more perceived than actual and thus makes the class war even more comical. It is also the overbearing and sanctimonious nature of the local dignitaries in the guise of Alderman Helliwell, played with first class comic timing by Mark Stratton, and Councillor Parker (Adrian Hood) who provide much heartfelt humour in the absurd glorification of their status and their subsequent fall from grace. This play is both bittersweet and imbued with considerable pathos as it shines a light on the crisis at the centre of the plot which cleverly gives rise to a revelation of idiocies and insecurities where none were imagined.
Kat Rose-Martin is totally engaging as the cheeky 15-year-old housemaid Ruby who is so joyfully plain speaking, alongside the even blunter Mrs Northrop, played with gusto by Lisa Howard. Rutter himself is raucous as the inebriated photographer Henry Ormonroyd. Gerald Forbes, played by Luke Adamson is so archetypal Edwardian and full of vibrancy. With outstanding performances by Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sue Devaney and Kate Anthony as the respectable “ladies” of the community and a very funny performance by Steve Huison as the henpecked Herbert Soppitt, the worm that turns.
When We Are Married is a play that will have you questioning the purpose of one’s nuptials and laughing out loud at the same time. A classic comic masterpiece.
Runs until 12 November 2016 | Image: Nobby Clark