ComedyNorth East & YorkshireReview

When We Are Married – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: J B Priestley
Music: Conrad Nelson
Director: Barrie Rutter
Reviewer: Janet Jepson

Playwright J B Priestley was born in 1894 in Bradford, and although he left the city to go to war at the age of 19, he never forgot his native roots, drawing much of the social aspects and moral ideas of his plays from the West Riding life of his boyhood. When We Are Married is no exception. In fact, Priestly himself described it as “a broadly farcical comedy”, “a little piece [that] is not a bad sketch of provincial manners and attitudes”.

Northern Broadsides, in conjunction with York Theatre Royal, certainly does not disappoint with their production of ‘the little piece’. The broad Yorkshire accents are prominent; the social climbers who dragged themselves up by their bootstraps to high places and big houses are there; the pretension and snobbery of ‘new middle class’ is evident; and it’s all nestled in the fleeces, merinos and yarns of the wool industry mills of the West Riding. Three couples with social standing in the local community – the Helliwells, the Parkers and the Soppitts – gather to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their nuptials at Lane End Chapel, but before the evening is out, an uncomfortable situation is brought to light by new organist and choirmaster Gerald Forbes (aka Luke Adamson). How would anyone feel if they thought they had been wed for 25 years, and then found out they actually hadn’t? In the early 20th Century, it would have been a disaster and the disgrace would have destroyed lives, but Priestley saw the comedy behind the situation. Annie Parker (played by Sue Devaney) need no longer bow down to her domineering husband Councillor Albert Parker (Adrian Hood), and might like to ‘travel’. Poor henpecked Herbert Soppitt (Brassed Off’s own Steve Huison) can cast off the shackles of his bossy wife Clara (aka Kate Anthony, well known as Auntie Pam on Coronation Street) and eat and drink whatever he likes. Maybe Alderman Joseph Helliwell (Mark Stratton) could run off with his Blackpool paramour Lottie Grady (played by Zoe Lambert), and escape his whingeing spouse Maria (Geraldine Fitzgerald)? It’s all pie-in-the-sky and what if, but it’s all very comical.

The below-stairs members of staff in the Helliwell household think it’s all hilarious. Young housemaid Ruby Birtles (played by Kat Rose-Martin), is the daughter of a Rotherham miner and says exactly what she thinks about her alleged superiors. Charlady Mrs. Northrop (Lisa Howard) is a blunt, doughty woman, who throws glassware, drinks in the local pub and laughs about her employers’ obsession with status – after all, she knew them when Maria was ‘nobbut a burler’ and Joe ‘nobbut a woolsorter’ at t’mill. Add to this, a reporter from the pompously-named local newspaper, along with his drunken photographer, provides the perfect ingredients for a riotous comedy. In the fashion of a true farce, who will be next through the door to add to the laughs?

The set is pretty simple, a smart drawing room in a smart middle-class household and all the action takes place here. The costumes are bright and colourful – the ladies’ dresses and hats co-ordinated in jewel-toned satins; and the newspaper men in loud checks. All the ladies have wonderful wigs, immaculately groomed ones for the trio of social climbers and artfully untidy ones for the ‘lower classes’. The setting and costumes though are merely the backdrop for the wonderful acting, comic timing and sheer entertainment that stems from the Northern Broadsides team.

Come along to West Yorkshire Playhouse for a good laugh, culminating in a surprise singsong complete with dance routine. The action might take place a century ago, and ideas of social standing might have changed mightily, but it’s very funny from start to finish. Everything turns out well in the end, everyone decides to be happy with their lot, and in the end don’t we all ‘like to be beside the seaside’?

Runs until 22 Oct 2016 | Image: Nobby Clark

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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