Unfortunately there was little effective comedy or hints of tragedy in this ponderous and unsubtle production of When We Are Married which, through poor direction, fails to make best use of its talented cast and creative team, and ultimately does not do justice to the play.

When We Were MarriedJ.B.Priestley moved a long way in the 1930s as a playwright. His first effort, The Roundabout, also reviewed here recently, was derivative and formulaic; but by 1938 when this quintessential West Riding farce was penned, he had become much more accomplished in both dramaturgy and social critique. He had started playing around with the possibility of precognition and how we re-experience time as memory.

Moreover, the satirical and moral indictment of bourgeois hypocrisies and unfettered capitalism that support his later plays began with his travelogue English Journey (1934), a book that still repays re-reading as we confront social and class disparities of another generation that are both different and the same.

All these preoccupations came together in An Inspector Calls.  Despite the restoration of conventional boundaries and proprieties at the end When We Are Married contains more than a few time-bends and shivers of melancholy which might easily have led into darker territory altogether.

Unfortunately there was little effective comedy or hint of tragedy in this ponderous and unsubtle production which through poor direction fails to make best use of its talented cast and creative team, and ultimately does not do justice to the play.

When We Were MarriedThe play is set, like An Inspector Calls, in the Edwardian Era, 1908 to be precise, and in Priestley’s home town of Bradford, here renamed Cleckleywyke, at the height of its woollen mill prosperity. The occasion is the twenty-fifth anniversary of three couples of high respectability who all married at the local Chapel on the same day. Unfortunately it turns out that the clergyman who conducted the ceremony was unlicensed and that therefore they have been unmarried for a quarter of a century instead.

Different forms of shock and embarrassment are registered, closets tumble open to reveal further skeletons, and as we emerge at the interval it is far from clear whether the couples consider the news as a scandal or liberation. There is a lot of verbal humour especially in taking down pomposity and meanness, but also great scope for visual slapstick where the words may in the right hands provide a starting point for inspired improvisation.

The plotting owes quite a bit to Feydeau, in that the first half carefully sets up all the farcical possibilities which provide the pay-off in a break-neck second half – or at least it should do. Unfortunately here the pace is far too slow throughout and much of the acting is exaggerated and stereotypical rather than governed by a quest for nuance or farcical imagination. At the root of the problem lies the fact that director Barrie Rutter also plays one of the most important roles, Ormonroyd, a drunken photographer, and this simply stretches his attention as director too thinly, while diminishing his own performance too.

To be fair there are some real positives. The set and costumes, the work of Jessica Worrall are admirably suited to this play. The groupings of fussy Edwardian period furniture set a precise tone and period, and there is a veritable forest of spiky and stiff pot plants that somehow echo the sanctimonious conventional pieties of much of the dialogue; but there is also a lot of fluid space for the actors to work in and no overcrowding, often the besetting sin of costume drama. The costumes and extravagant wigs are also just as they should be, ranging from the prim, sober and dowdy for the married couples to the louche and slatternly for the photographer and charlady.

When We Were MarriedThe best of the acting comes from those in the quieter roles. Both Annie (Sue Devaney) and Herbert (Steve Huison), the put-upon, hectored and hen-pecked partners in the play, enjoy some lovely moments especially in the second half when the worms turn with some hope of better marriages by the end of the evening.

Elsewhere it is a sadder story, as actors with impressive CVs do little more than scratch the surface of the roles. Among the women Geraldine Fitzgerald lacks the natural imperiousness needed in the wife of Alderman Helliwell, so her collapse and breakdown as the social façade cracks is far less amusing than it should be. Kate Anthony, as the sharp-tongued Clara, has some good moments, but it is still more of a monochrome performance than it need be.

Kat Rose-Martin as the young maid Ruby was sadly not always audible, and Lisa Howard’s Mrs Northrop was far too blowsy and exaggerated a performance. The pace picked up all round when Lottie Grady, the local tart with a heart, made her appearance; but by then half the play had slid past.

Among the men Adrian Hood captured the absurd pomposity and stinginess of the arriviste Albert Parker, but both he and Mark Stratton as Alderman Helliwell rarely rose beyond stereotypical responses to the situations they encounter in the play, and the same could be said of Rutter’s portrayal of the inebriated but eloquent photographer (to whom it also falls to unravel the plot). This is a gift of a part for an actor able to indulge in physical improvisation, but here it was simply tedious in the same way that encountering a wordy drunk in real life is tedious.

When We Were MarriedAs the love interest that sets the play in motion there is little for Luke Adamson and Sophia Hatfield to do – these parts are undoubtedly underwritten as we never really get to hear about their future – but they managed a degree of bright, surface charm. Likewise, the remaining minor parts were competently dispatched.

On the creative side this production was more than competent, though really the Rose Theatre is too big and vault-like as a venue for a play that needs intimacy.

However, a play that satirises people who take themselves far too seriously needs to be directed with a deft and light touch and a sense of pace (different from sheer speed) that was simply lacking here.

Instead of knocking the varnish off this well upholstered, well made play, new layers were slapped on. The play is still good enough to carry an evening and entertain an audience on its own, but there are so many more possibilities out there.

When We Are Married
SOURCEPhotography by Nobby Clarke
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…