I may be a bit of a la-di-da southerner but, by ‘eck, I know northern quality when I see it.
You can rely on Barrie Rutter and his Northern Broadsides Theatre Company to put on a good spread and nothing beats its latest offering of JB Priestley’s lively provincial comedy, When We Are Married.
NB, based in Halifax, has teamed up with York Theatre Royal to tour the UK with this little masterpiece and this week I caught it during its run at the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames.
Any fears that the robust northern humour and language may not travel well “down south” were immediately dispelled.
At the opening the audience roared with laughter as housemaid Ruby (Kat Rose-Martin) waddled on stage after opening the front door to a visitor.
She shows a guest into the parlour before launching into a full, no detail spared, rundown as to who is present and what they were eating at the salubrious home of Alderman Joseph Helliwell .
Newcomer Gerald Forbes can’t get a word in edgeways. Some of her phrasing is so ripe that I felt I needed an interpreter – which only made it funnier.
There’s little finesse with When We Are Married and it’s all the better for it. It almost falls, at times, into farce territory as Priestley sets up his sextet of well-to-do worthies for a major hitch in their well ordered Edwardian lives.
The Helliwells, Parkers and Soppitts all married on the same day, in the same church, 25 years ago. In the intervening time the menfolk have grown rich in wool, taking up positions of standing in their community.
They’re stalwarts of the chapel, aldermen and councillors. Big wigs and fat cats enjoying the fruits of their workers’ labour.
Their wives, too, have come up in the world from shop assistants to ladies of leisure, now dressed in fine silk dresses and living in grand houses.
But Priestley has a surprise in store.
The group of friends are meeting up to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. Joe (Mark Stratton) has invited the Yorkshire Argus to come an take a picture, and he’s broken out his best cigars and brandy.
But before then they need to sort out their new organist, Forbes, who has been seen gallivanting about town with a woman (gasp) and is too southern for their tastes.
Summoned to the house the dapper southerner is expecting bad news. But, on learning why the Helliwells are hosting a party, Forbes erupts into laughter. He knows a secret about their marriages and it’s not one the three couples would want to be made public.
“If this leaks out we are done!” exclaims Joe.
As the group try to put a lid on his revelation they have to contend with a maid who has verbal diarrhoea, a Bolshie cook who threatens to reveal all, a boozy newspaper snapper and a “woman of easy virtue.”
Rutter can’t help but give himself a peach of a role as the half-cut photographer. He occasionally staggers in to deliver a line or two of slurred dialogue – before returning to provide the play with a corker of an ending.
The actor doesn’t mess around here with nuances. ‘enry Ormonroyd, the ruddy faced sot, is a pure vaudeville creation, tottering about supping whatever he can get his hands on before entertaining us with a bit of music hall with his old chum, Lottie (Zoe Lambert, a vision in scarlet).
Rutter, who also directs, has an eye for physical humour and his cast reflect the ethos of “opposite’s attract.”
Former Coronation Street actress, Kate Anthony, is superb as Clara Soppitt, the kind of powerful, terrifying, matronly battleaxe that Les Dawson used to mimic. One steely glower and she has every man quaking in their boots.
Her thin, henpecked husband, Herbert, (Steve Huison) doesn’t have the courage to stand up her – until the worm turns and gives her a dose of her own medicine.
Another former Corrie star, Sue Devaney, making her debut with NB, plays the tiny, timid, Annie who looks to take advantage of their discovered marital mix-up by considering a new start.
She’s hitched to Councillor Albert Parker, a brilliant comic creation brought to the stage by the lofty and well-built Adrian Hood. He uses his size to great advantage as the group bully.
He’s shocked when his wife quietly announces: “I don’t think I want to be married to you. After 25 years of it perhaps I have had enough.
“You are very selfish and conceited. You’re very stingy, pompous, very dull and dreary.”
He looks astonished. “Never!”
It’s amazing what a few home truths can do for a relationship and it’s a pity they all waited 25 years before having the opportunity to air them.
We Are Marrried is an unbridled joy from start to finish. The acting is first rate, the dialogue polished to perfection and Rutter’s direction, is, as always, right on the money.
Remaining 2016 tour dates
October 18-22, West Yorkshire Playhouse October 25-29, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough November 1-5 Nov, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham November 8-12, New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme November 22-26, Liverpool Playhouse November 29-December 10, Viaduct Theatre, Halifax.
When We Are Married
There’s not a single hitch in Northern Broadsides production of JB Priestley’s provincial comedy, When We Are Marrried. Funny, warm and richly played.