Written in 1938, 30 years after the time it is set, there is a knowingness about JB Priestley’s When We Are Married that makes it seem ahead of its time. Priestley is laughing at the hypocrisies and pretensions of his characters just as we are.
Class, moral superiority and the north-south divide are just some of the issues that Priestley makes full comedic use of in this social farce. It is 1908, and we are at the Yorkshire home of Alderman Helliwell and his wife Maria. The couple are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary with two other couples of similar middle-class respectability – the Soppitts and the Parkers – who were married on the same day by the same vicar. The Yorkshire Argus has been called, a photographer is on his way. But that’s before a young southern upstart brings some unfortunate news to the trio of older men: the parson who married the couples wasn’t fully registered, their marriages have never been legal.
The revelation has surprising consequences for all three couples, which are readily embraced by the cast. Sam Kelly excels as the hen-pecked Herbert Soppitt who suddenly realises he doesn’t have to take orders from someone who isn’t his wife after all; Michelle Dotrice’s put-upon Annie Parker sees a chance to escape her boorish ‘husband’; while David Horovitch’s Helliwell comes a cropper when his one-time lady-friend sees her opportunity to take him at his word and muscle out the wife that never was.
It is a large cast, and the central couples receive fine support from Lynda Baron as the working-class housekeeper who revels in the reversal of respectability suffered by her snooty employers, Jodie McNee as plain-talking maid Ruby Birtle and Roy Hudd as dishevelled photographer Henry Ormonroyd, who mostly gets “tiddly” on the Helliwell’s port. Peter Sandys-Clarke and Laura Haddock add spirit to proceedings as the young courting couple whose dalliances at dusk highlight the old-fashioned attitudes and hypocrisy of their elders.
Director Christopher Luscombe – who is fast becoming a master of farce – makes the most of some cracking lines in Priestley’s script and adds some nice moments of physical comedy.
All this is played out on a living room set by Simon Higlett that is exquisite in its detail. Faded, patterned wallpapers, chaise longues, antique furniture, dusty dried flowers and ornately-framed paintings give this room a grand yet staid look, as though it has remained the same for the past 25 years, stuck in the past – much like the people who inhabit it.