When We Are Married

Liverpool Playhouse

30 April – 23 May 2009

If you ever needed a snapshot of what marriage meant in early 20th century England, look no further than JB Priestley’s play about the subject which is being performed at Liverpool’s Playhouse theatre until the end of this month.

The brilliant ensemble cast – consisting of five Liverpool-born actors – put in outstanding performances, translating the Bradford-born playwright’s farcical comedy When We Are Married with little alteration to its original purpose.

Three married couples are supposedly celebrating their silver wedding anniversaries but discover they may not be married after all.

What will the community of the small Yorkshire town of Clecklewyke think? Living together out of wedlock – surely not!

It’s a scenario the three well-to-do Northern men; Alderman Joseph Helliwell (played by Graham Turner), Councillor Albert Parker (Paul Bown) and Herbert Soppitt (Les Dennis) – three highly respected figures of the town’s Lane End Chapel – find themselves within.

The news is broken to them by the chapel’s organist Gerald Forbes (Tom Lawrence) – via a letter he received from the minister who supposedly married the three couples. Forbes’ inclusion also acts as JB Priestley’s reference to the North and South divide. He’s a “La-de-da Southerner” according to proud Yorkshire man Councillor Parker.

Nonetheless, the men take the news seriously and the issue of Forbes having too much ‘hanky panky’ with Alderman Helliwell’s niece Nancy Holmes (Claire Radcliffe) is quickly swept under the carpet.

The concern is their wives’ reaction. How will Annie Parker (Gabrielle Lloyd), Maria Helliwell (Tricia Kelly), and Clara Soppit (Polly Hemingway) react?

As the audience peeps through a transparent set at arguments and debates and see the comings of goings of those caught up in the farce, issues of a woman’s role in marriage are questioned as aspects of loyalty and independence collide – all brought out through comical effect.

This production was given a big billing in the city as comedian Les Dennis was making a homecoming return. As Herbert Soppitt, he delivers a measured and assured performance of a long suffering husband who finds it within himself to answer back.

Hemingway as his partner – Clara Soppit – stands out amongst the three wives for her comical timing in delivering her lines.

But the star turns are made by Liverpool’s Tom Georgeson as the Yorkshire Argus photographer Henry Ormonroyd and Jodie McNee as maid Ruby Birtle.

Georgeson is excellent playing drunk but also finds sympathy from the audience when he is told he is sacked from the newspaper, however, McNee’s supporting role as the working class representative is full of energy, comedy, real natural talent, and her presence on the stage always left you smiling.

Events lead to sobering news as the whole cast sing the play’s title song “When We Are Married”, before the Yorkshire ditty “On Ilkley Moor Bar Tat”. As the cast take a bow or curtsy, the biggest cheer was left for McNee.

– Michael Hunt