You know what you have in store when the lights go down in a West End auditorium and the curtain goes up on a set that elicits a panto-style "Oooooooo" followed by a appreciative round.
Welcome to the Garrick Theatre and the revival of J.B. Priestley's WHEN WE ARE MARRIED.
I had seen this cosy comedy before when it was last revived in 1986 at the Whitehall Theatre in a production directed by the late Ronald Eyre. Needless to say, there are a few more lates from that production - Bill Fraser, Patsy Rowlands, Kathy Staff and John Stratton. I seem to remember it being... well, cosy.
Well... it's still cosy but having seen a few more Priestley plays since then I can see that underneath the gentility it still deals with his favorite subject of the passage of time.In a Yorkshire milltown in 1908, three well-to-do couples are celebrating their silver wedding anniversaries having all been married on the same day by the same vicar when they discover to their horror that he was not authorised to officiate at nuptials so technically they are not married.
Once the secret is out, the couples see each other with new eyes - hen-pecked and browbeaten spouses assert themselves for the first time as the 'lower orders' also let 'their betters' know exactly what they think of them.Add into the mix an ageing manhunter from Blackpool and a boozy photographer who has been asked to take an anniversary picture of the couples and you have a very English farce of manners and, of course, class.
Priestley's comedy runs like clockwork and hey if it ain't broke.... However there is little chance that it will ever be fashionable, unlike Stephen Daldrey's re-interpreting of AN INSPECTOR CALLS, as Priestley only toys with the sudden liberating possibilities for the main characters - hidden grudges are aired while the husband from one couple and the wife from another verge on the possibility of starting their old romance again - before suddenly providing an abrupt ending that restores the status quo. It is as if the idea of their starting again scares Priestley as much as his characters.There are moments when Christopher Luscombe's direction hints at the darker undercurrents of the play but these are brought out more by the subtle playing of the main cast.
Simon Rouse and David Horovitch splutter for all their worth as the two husbands with the most to lose socially while Sam Kelly is a delight as the henpecked worm that turns - his lip-smacking delight while savouring a forbidden drink is comedy gold. Maureen Lipman is in splendid form as the domineering wife who is brought to heel but Susie Blake seemed oddly anonymous as the social-climbing wife of the alderman. The surprise of the evening was Michele Dotrice who, while resembling a guinea-pig in an Edwardian dress, reveals a killer sense of comic timing especially when deflating her husband's presumption that she would want to marry him again.The supporting cast are led superbly by Roy Hudd who brings all his comic timing to bear in the role of Ormonroyd the drunk photographer - he does a double-take that's worth the price of admission alone! The lower orders are played robustly by Lynda Barron as the plain-speaking cook Mrs. Northrup and Jodie McNee as the back-chatting servant Ruby - in the Ronald Eyre production Ruby was played like Su Pollard with brain damage (I will allow you a minute to suffer that thought along with me) so McNee's delightful turn was particularly welcome.
As I said, Simon Higlett's Edwardian drawing room with no surface knowingly uncovered in lace, damask or ornaments caused near pandemonium when the curtain rose and he is know doubt receiving fan-mail from the home counties by the van-load.WHEN WE ARE MARRIED does exactly what is expected of it and while it won't change anyone's life, there is no denying the pleasure in seeing such comedy expertese in one place. Would that all West End revivals were such fun.