ComedyReviewSouth East

When We Are Married – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Writer: JB Priestley
Director: Barrie Rutter
Reviewer: Paul Couch

The pre-war world of JB Priestley was a very different place to what we know today. After the Depression and before the turmoil of war in Europe, England was pretty much a land of idyll for everyone but the poorest of its populace.

tell-us-block_editedThis near-octogenarian play has aged reasonably well. True, it has plot holes one could drive a seaside charabanc through and contrivances that would make Feydeau and Rix blush; however, Rutter and his team make a commendable enough job of it and, the time-slip aside, Top Show’s muted Edwardian set works beautifully on the Georgian stage of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.

Its 15 characters are larger-than-life Yorkshire stereotypes, all Parkin and “trouble at t’mill”, but Rutter’s cast – himself included – are obviously relishing breathing life into the production, even if it’s not particularly cutting-edge stuff, and that joy permeates into the audience like the smell of fresh meat pies at a social club.

Three well-heeled businessmen gather with their wives at the house of one in order to celebrate the 25th wedding(s) anniversary of all three couples, who were all hitched in the same chapel by the same clergyman at the same time. This is not by any means a clever set-up by Priestley, and we can see the train-crash twist coming a mile off, even if we’re not familiar with the source material.

Add to this scenario a flighty niece (Sophia Hatfield) and a rogue chapel organist (Luke Adamson), a drunken press photographer (Rutter) and a couple of batty servants (Kat Rose-Martin and Lisa Howard), and it’s fairly obvious early on that we’re not talking meta-theatre here. However, in between the farce, there are some interesting and incisive observations on the dynamics of married life during the Edwardian period. Unfortunately, the in-your-face Carry On Upstairs Downstairs mentality of Priestley’s script swamps that somewhat.

It’s also curious to note that original anachronistic scenes such as the photographer telling the gobby maid if she doesn’t mind her manners, her husband will dispatch her with an axe, have been re-introduced, despite the obvious and unpalatable reference to domestic violence.

To be honest, Nancy the niece and her beau, Gerald the randy organist, aren’t given a whole lot to do other than get barked at, run in and out of doors, and then vanish without explanation – their sub-plot unresolved – for most of the Second Act but, for all that, Hatfield and Adamson acquit themselves well during the stage time they do get.

The three comedy Yorkshiremen (Mark Stratton, Adrian Hood, Steve Huison) and their respective wives (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sue Devaney, and Kate Anthony) bluster and bicker their way splendidly through over two hours of bedlam with barely a pause for breath. In fact, all 15 actors hand in flawless performances and that’s really what makes this elderly play so enjoyable – the twee-ness of it maybe not so much.

When We Are Married is a dated selection from Priestley’s catalogue; It lacks the sweetness of The Good Companions and the menace of An Inspector Calls, but it’s perfect for an audience demographic of a certain vintage who prefer their stage offerings sans nudity and profanity, and it fits perfectly Northern Broadsides’ remit to tour classic work with a northern voice to it.

Runs until 8 October 2016 | Image:Nobby Clark

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