Set in 1908, there’s a lot of potential for J. B. Priestley’s 1938 comedy When We Are Married to have dated terribly in the last century or so. And yet, save for the costumes and the odd glass of port, Northern Broadsides bring out the universal qualities of the play in an energetic battle of the sexes which isn’t afraid to air dirty laundry when guests are round.
The plot follows three couples celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, only to find that the last twenty-five years may have been invalidated by the carelessness of the young priest officiating the ceremony. As an ensemble, these six ne’er-been-weds complement each other perfectly. You can feel the chemistry between Mark Stratton and Geraldine Fitzgerald’s Councillor Joe and matriarch Maria Helliwell, sharing that well-worn pair of slippers comfortable affection, which withstands a considerable amount of testing in just one day. By contrast, Kate Anthony sharpens all the edges of Clara Soppit so she can slice finely through her “byword” of a husband Herbert (a suitably subdued Steve Huison, who gets to really lose it later with his wife and become a firm audience favourite).
Herbert finds a kindred spirit in Annie Parker, a similarly browbeaten spouse who stands in the shadow of her husband Councillor Albert Parker. The physical height difference between Sue Devaney and Adrian Hood is just one way their marital rift manifests itself: Hood booms continuously as Devaney reveals flashes of irritation. She’s another actor who gets to really shift the power dynamic in the couple, and her measured way of picking apart all of Albert’s flaws is superbly handled. Hood’s Albert seems to shrink in this moment, which is no mean feat considering how he’s consistently dwarfed his peers and the props throughout the first act. The attention to detail when creating such a dainty sitting room works brilliantly to create a claustrophobic atmosphere as the whole of Clecklewyke descends upon the Helliwell household.
It’s the basic nature of a farce to set aside a good half an hour for groundwork, with the drawback being that the pacing can feel a little off at first. However, the looser the threads become as the plot unravels, the easier the cast feel: dulled by alcohol and heightened by stress is how these players portray their characters best. The overall cast are all very strong and sadly can’t all be named here or else I’ll run past my word count, but a particular mention should go to Kat Rose-Martin and director Barrie Rutter for their scene together. Rose-Martin plays the Helliwells’ maid Ruby with so much bluntness you’d think she wouldn’t know subtlety if it hit her around the head. Practically plodding in and out of rooms, her unintentional candour only becomes more charming with time, and here we see she’s ultimately a good egg – which is what everybody is by the conclusion. Even the arrival of unwanted guests and the eavesdropping of unruly housekeepers can’t stop the neat tying together of the play, but they do lend themselves to some truly raucous comedy highlights.
Northern Broadsides do a fantastic job of holding their own against the exaggerated state of Priestley’s script: lesser companies would over act and lose the sentiment behind the married couples, but Rutter’s direction walks a fine line between comedy and drama which doesn’t miss a beat. It’s this sense of perspective that really warms me to them. Behind the farce elements (and there are a lot of them – the closing line of Act One is something else) are real characters who you’re really rooting for. That sense of fleshed out character is lost a bit on the young lovers Nancy and Gerald. Sophia Hatfield and Luke Adamson do the best with what they’ve got, and their sense of chemistry injects a nice youthful quality to the overall performance. However their plot is set aside fairly quickly; they’re less the main attraction, more window dressing.
Priestley wraps up the plot with a happy ending, Northern Broadsides take it one further and start a singalong. It’s an old-fashioned ending, but then again it’s an old-fashioned play: I can ship them all I want, but I know deep down that Annie and Herbert won’t be running off with one another at the end. However, for all its old-school tendencies by wrapping up the marriages neatly, Broadsides revitalise the script and make this show seem just as successful a distraction from “the state of Europe for an hour or two” (words from Priestley himself, the day after it opened in 1938) as it must have been the first time round.
When We Are Married is on until 24th September 2016 at York Theatre Royal. Click here for more information.