When We Are Married

J B Priestley
Produced by Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer, for Nimax Theatres, and Duncan C. Weldon and Paul Elliot in association with Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

When We Are Married photo

This revival of Priestley’s classic comedy (written in 1938 but set 30 years earlier) may seem dated today with the respectability of marriage being laughable, yet there are still comparisons to be made with one’s standing in the community and keeping up appearances, and Priestley knew how best to make fun of it all.

In the Yorkshire town of Cleckleywyke (that name almost sets the scene on its own) it is a September evening in 1908 and three couples who were all married on the same day, in the same church and by the same vicar twenty five years earlier have gathered to celebrate their years of marital bliss. A reporter and photographer from the Yorkshire Argus are due to arrive to record the event and they are all dressed up to the nines for the occasion.

Alderman Joseph Helliwell (David Horovitch)and his good lady wife Maria (Susie Blake) are hosting the party in their home, and Simon Higlett has done them proud with an intricately conceived set where meticulous attention is given to every detail. The drawing room gives the impression of a man who, from humble beginnings, has made his way in the world and is now intent on demonstrating his acquired wealth and importance. The room is large and filled with pictures, mirrors, sideboard, tables, chairs, ornaments, photographs and the essential piano, as well as a chaise-longue and a sofa. A central curtain-covered door leads to the rest of the house and a side entrance, complete with stained glass windows opens to the garden - probably by way of a conservatory. So resplendent is the scene that it received a spontaneous round of appreciative applause - something which happened frequently throughout the play for several individual performances, beginning with that of Jodie McNee as Ruby, the Yorkshire chatterbox maid. Young, naive and always ready to give her opinion, she pops in and out throughout the evening, talking practically non-stop, at great length, and making full comical use of the dialogue.

The other couples are Councillor Albert Parker (Simon Rouse) with wife Annie (Michelle Dotrice), and business man, henpecked Herbert Soppitt (Sam Kelly) with his domineering wife Clara (Maureen Lipman)

All very conscious of their respectable position in the community, they are about to dismiss their organist (Lah di dah and a Southerner to boot) for the sin of being seen out at night with a girl, when he produces a letter revealing that their marriages are not, after all, valid. Consternation reigns and suddenly he is not such a bad chap after all, but how to keep their disgrace becoming common knowledge? - a forlorn hope with the char lady Mrs. Northrop (Lynda Baron) listening gleefully at the door. The discovery that they are not legally married leads to some very intriguing reversals of roles when dark secrets come to light, and the entrance of a Lottie (Rosemary Ashe), a floozy who seems to know all the men, brings more shocks.

Billed as a farcical comedy, the farce is all in the situation, not the antics, and Christopher Luscombe has let the dialogue speak for itself with no mistaken identity, near-misses or lost trousers (thank goodness), but keeps tight control achieving the constant comings and goings with perfect timing and complete feasibility.

With such a starry ensemble cast you would expect expert and entertaining performances and they more than live up to expectations - with special praise for Roy Hudd. The part of the tipsy photographer, Henry Ormonroyd, is one he has wanted to perform since first seeing the play at the age of thirteen. Sixty years later he is thrilled to have achieved his aim, and he makes the most of it.

The Guildford audience loved the show, laughing uproariously and applauding wildly at every opportunity. Hopefully it will keep the same understated comedy going when it reaches the West End. Overemphasis would ruin it.

Until Saturday, 16th October, 2010, then opening at the Garrick on 27th October (previews from 19th) for a limited season.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor