The well-to-do Mr and Mrs Helliwell, Mr and Mrs Parker and Mr and Mrs Soppitt have been married 25 years today – or so they think. As it transpires, they were never officially married at all, and so begins J B Priestley’s When We Are Married at York Theatre Royal.
First staged in 1938 and set in 1908, much of Priestley’s play still charms today but many of its contrivances pre-date our modern sensibilities, leaving some of the plot neither shocking nor shockingly funny.
“I say we’ll have some fun!”
This is not to say that it is not good fun, just that the cast have to work hard to keep the audience on side. Fortunately, they do. Much of the humour here is thanks to impeccable casting and well-pitched comic timing rather than any plot device. Kat Rose-Martin stands out as Ruby Birtle, the Helliwell’s no-nonsense maid, with an accent that makes you proud to be Yorkshire and a presence that commands the stage whenever she enters. Steve Huison also catches the eye as the much-maligned Herbert Soppitt. Huison masters, rather than overplays, a physical humour that also serves to make Soppitt one of the most endearing, interesting, and human characters in the play, along with Annie Parker (Sue Devaney), with whom he shares a tender and funny scene.
“Marriage is a serious business!”
Aside from the humour, the germination of the piercing social commentary found in Priestley’s most famous work An Inspector Calls can also be seen here, with Counsellor Parker surely being a pre-curser to Mr Birling. The blurring of the lines between the upper and lower classes is keenly felt when the sitting room becomes a free-for-all for any Tom, Dick, Harry or Henry. Mrs Northrop, the cook and housekeeper, even takes it upon herself to remind Mrs Soppitt of her past as a greengrocer’s daughter. There are also plenty of characters with not much to smile about by the end but comedies get ‘happy endings’, of course, and this one occurs rather abruptly and jarringly with a sing-along and a knees up. It is unclear if this decision was an intentional extension of Priestley’s irony. If so, then thumbs up.
The functional set and sumptuous costumes root us effectively in this past world, enabling our suspension of disbelief. Though not quite a barrel full, there are still plenty of laughs and Northern Broadsides have once again provided an enjoyable and high-quality evening of entertainment, with a consistently strong cast. Next time, let’s have some more grit.