When We Are Married by J.B.Priestley
Newbury Weekly News Thursday May 25 th, 2006
Spot of Marital Mayhem
Priestley’s technical hitch means scandal for silver wedding couples
J.B. Priestley was a great observer of social mores. When We Are Married challenges and unsettles the comfortable middle classes of their time, and probably ours too.
Set about 100 years ago in a small town in Yorkshire, it depicts self-satisfied pillars of the community who throw their weight around on the council and in the churches. Respectability is all-important, so imagine the scandal and outrage that would threaten three couples celebrating their silver wedding anniversaries if it emerged that, owing to a legal technicality, they weren’t married at all.
In the Basildonians excellent production, there was a great sense of ensemble laying and pace with nicely defined characters. Tim Manasseh and Claire Burroughs played the bombastic Councillor Parker and his bored wife. The blustering Alderman Helliwell and his wife, her anger always bubbling beneath the surface like a volcano about to erupt, were Nick and Sue Thorowgood (I bet they had fun rehearsing at home) and the Soppitts, henpecked Herbert and fearsome Clara, were brilliantly played by Peter Nightingale and Sue Matthews. These two showed particularly well the effect of the shocking news, with Herbert suddenly discovering a dominant trait and Clara becoming quite demure, and Ms Matthews had a devastating sense of timing in her withering one-liners – lovely stuff.
The trials and tribulations of the three couples were well-seasoned by, among others, a feisty maid and a very blunt charwoman, well played by Henrietta Bailey and Angela Crompton, Chris Hawson as the increasingly drunk and confused photographer, sent to capture the happy event and Stella Ross as the confident and colourful ‘other woman’ Lottie Grady.
Director Gill Reid managed her large cast expertly and her firm grasp of the comedy meant that we all left smiling.
The Country Neighbour
There is a point in every live performance when you instantly know if the production has hit a cord with the audience. It can be on Radio 4’s Any Questions or the latest social polemic to hit the West End – that decisive moment is equally obvious to all.
In this production of When We Are Married, the life or death verdict as to whether the Basildonians had connected was delivered as the characters grasped the implications of news that shattered their comfortable marital domesticity of 25 years.
Because of an error by a fledgling vicar all those years ago, three couples who had become pillars of their community were told that they were not in fact married at all.
With the arrogance and pomposity that only a waist coated local councillor such as that played so extravagantly by Tim Manasseh could himself not recognise, Councillor Albert Parker tells the woman he has lived with for 25 years that she does not need to worry. With thumbs in his waistcoat, his chest puffed out, the councillor reassures her that he will do the honourable thing and legalise their “marriage”.
The words may have been written by J.B. Priestly seven decades earlier, but the heavy irony in the author’s pen is today stronger than ever. The audience collectively sucked in their breath as Councillor Parker told his little lady: “I know my duty.”
And how this audience loved it when Annie Parker told her man: “I don’t think I want to be married to you. After 25 years I have had enough.”
The spontaneous applause was the sign that the Basildonians were waiting for. They had connected. This enthusiastic clapping of hands in the village hall of Upper Basildon would be the equivalent of whistles and whooping outside of the calmer world of West Berkshire.
When We Are Married was a brave and inspired choice by this small yet talented amateur dramatic society.
J.B. Priestley set the story of the three couples in turmoil in Northern England in 1908. A polished performance from every one of the 14-strong character cast is vital to retain the humour and poignancy without allowing it to develop into farce.
The Basildonians succeeded. The production was confident and stylish – and delivered with convincing and consistent northern accents which in itself was no mean feat.
Nick Thorowgood deserves particular mention for his central role of Alderman Helliwell. The emotional current created by Peter Nightingale as plain Mister Soppitt and Claire Burroughs as Annie Parker was effectively transmitted to an enthusiastic audience.
A clever, simple set design ensured that the focus was always on the characters and the brilliant words of J.B. Priestley. After all, he knew exactly what he was talking about. He was born in Yorkshire…and married three times.