When We Are Married
J. B. Priestley
Sat 7th July to Sat 14th July
Twenty-five years ago, the Helliwells, the Parkers and the Soppitts were married on the same day by the same parson. They gather at the Helliwell home to celebrate their silver wedding. The new chapel organist tells them that he recently met the parson who conducted the triple wedding ceremony and reveals that he was not authorized to do so. Pandemonium breaks out when these pillars of society believe they have been living in sin for twenty-five years. One of the most famous comedies of the 20th century. Originally performed by the Criterion in Dec 1961/Jan 1962 and makes a fitting endpiece to our 50th celebrations. It has been continually performed since it was first written in 1938 and has just enjoyed a highly successful professional revival in the West End.
When We Are Married, Criterion Theatre, Coventry, until Saturday (July 14). Running time 2 hours 35 mins.
FRANKLY I wasn't looking forward to J.B. Priestley's distinctly long-in-the-tooth When We Are Married which is set in 1908, was first staged in the 1930s and has been revived by amateur dramatic companies ever since, even the founding members of the Criterion back in 1961.
But from the moment the curtain went up to reveal the attention to detail shown in the recreation of an Edwardian parlour, I knew this would be no ordinary three act play.
Indeed you know the rest of the cast will be good when even the maid, played by Nicole Cortese, is full of fun...and that's long before we get to meet tipsy newspaper photographer Henry Ormonroyd, a part unashamedly revelled in by Criterion veteran Keith Railton.
Keith's drunk act secured a round of applause all on its own, as did his dance with Jan Nightingale, who does a bit of scene-stealing of her own towards the end.
For those who don't already know, the basis of Priestley's plot is three Northern couples who have all done rather well for themselves and have come together to celebrate their silver wedding anniversaries.
So, we meet Councillor Albert Parker, played by Matt Sweatman who has developed so much as an actor through his years with the company, and Annie, his long suffering wife – played by Matt's real-life wife Gennie Holmes – who after 25 years craves a bit of excitement.
Fictional Annie that is, not Gennie.
Then there's henpecked Herbert Soppitt, played by Rob Wootton, and his no-nonsense wife, beautifully handled by Chris Ingall, and the illustrious Alderman Joseph Helliwell and Mrs Helliwell, well played by Steve Crump and Emma Withers, who is a woman who seems to have everything except satisfactory servants.
There are no weak links in this production, Keith's performance alone is worth the price of the ticket but I also liked Peter Gillam's timing and Rachel Newey's plate smashing and just about everything else in this hugely enjoyable evening that mixes hilarity with a few sentimental moments of pure nostalgia.
Altogether this is a superb ensemble effort from a 14-strong cast directed by Helen Withers.
Verdict: "Don't ponder the age of the play...just book a ticket"
Watch chains are stretched across worsted waistcoats. Collar studs are feeling the strain. Corsets, one imagines, are feeling the same. Such are the effects of a roast pork supper with all the trimmings followed by trifle, choice of jellies and whatever the cheesemongers of Checklewyke coul...d bring to the table.
The occasion is the 25th wedding anniversary of three couples married on the same day. Or were they? Priestley’s play, set in 1908, revolves around the premise that they weren’t officially married at all. It transpires that the cleric who performed the service at “’t’chapel” was not properly qualified to do so.
These are respectable Yorkshire folk and the effects are shrewdly observed from a distance of 30 years by a writer who knew Yorkshire better than most. He enjoyed pricking the pretensions, the hypocrisy and snobbishness of the Edwardian middle classes. Priestley wrote the play in 1938, when corsets had loosened a little, but marriage was still considered the backbone of family and community life. “Living in sin,” was a condition to be frowned upon.
The dramatic possibilities set up by the revelation that these pillars of the local community are not quite as upstanding as they seem would have opened a can of worms in the hands of a playwright such as Ibsen. But this is no dark and brooding Scandinavian exploration of marital oppression. Priestley wrote it as comedy and the Criterion has made sure that every last laugh is wrung out of a scenario that could all too easily raise little more than a shrug from a modern audience. The result is a hugely enjoyable evening and a credit to all concerned.
Bob Morley’s sumptuous set provides just the right assemblage of weighty fittings and fixtures that you might expect to find in the home of an Alderman who has made his “brass” in the woollen trade. Here are chairs and settees of studded velvet with Queen Ann legs. China dogs flank the mantelpiece. Potted plants abound, including possibly the smallest aspidistra in the world. A decanter of port comes to rest on a capacious sideboard above which is a huge picture of a rampant stag.
For a while it seems that the hen-pecked Herbert Soppitt is asserting his manhood after 25 years of intimidation from a woman who may not be his wife at all. He begins to flirt with Annie Parker, who has had a similarly miserable ‘marriage’ to a pompous, bullying and corpulent councillor. At one point she allows Herbert to put his arm around her shoulder without so much as a “stop it, Soppitt.” But that’s as far as it goes. Having raised hopes, expectations and questions, Priestley promptly pushes everything back into respectable conformity through a plot twist from a most unlikely source – a drunken press photographer who provides a wonderfully comic cameo role that Keith Railton plays for all its worth.
There are other memorable performances, almost too many to mention. Matt Sweatman is horribly convincing as the odious Councillor Parker. Gennie Holmes portrays his downtrodden wife with a nicely nuanced display of generosity of spirit that is all too briefly given reign. Chris Ingall conveys the shrewish nature of Mrs Soppitt so effectively that the audience cheered when Herbert gave her a slight slap. Pete Gillam plays the “lah-di-dah southerner” who sets the cat among the pigeons with the effortless aplomb that he no doubt applies to playing the organ in “’t’chapel.”
Nicole Cortese and Rachel Newey are splendidly bolshie servants and the latter has a voice capable of spreading juicy gossip far more effectively than a young reporter from the Yorkshire Argus who couldn’t spot a story if it fell in his lap. Despite a brain impaired by copious quantities of alcohol, his colleague from the Edwardian paparazzi is the one who sniffs out scandal.
By that time his collar stud has burst and his puce face is almost the same colour as his watch-less waistcoat. But he responds with a sense of perspective notably lacking from those who have always regarded themselves as his superiors and a gesture that ultimately gives them back their engrained sense of respectability.
READ REVIEW 3 on http://elephantjam.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/when-we-are-married/