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Review Round-up: Priestley's Married at Garrick

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Christopher Luscombe’s West End revival of JB Priestley's 1938 comedy When We Are Married opened at the Garrick Theatre last week (28 October 2010, previews from 19 October).

The cast includes established stars Roy Hudd, Maureen Lipman, Simon Rouse, Michele Dotrice and Sam Kelly amongst the three respectable couples who find out that despite getting married together in the same church on the same day 25 years ago, the vicar was never licensed and they aren't actually married.

The production marks the popular play’s first West End appearance since 1996 (when it was staged at the Savoy). Is it a welcome return?

Michael Coveney

- "Forty years ago, producers Duncan Weldon and Paul Elliot launched their partnership with this imperishable J B Priestley play, and they’re back in harness for Christopher Luscombe’s cheerful, well paced, if rather strenuous, revival … This time round, the Soppitts are a furious, beady-eyed Maureen Lipman and a walrus-moustached Sam Kelly, and the balance has shifted. Lipman’s Clara is much more shrewish and curiously given to angular, revue-style posturing, while Kelly’s Herbert Soppitt is goonish and abstract … Rosemary Ashe as the “scarlet woman” from the halls is gratingly full-on vulgar. Roy Hudd, though, brings all his music hall cheek to bear on old Ormonroyd … Simon Higlett’s brown, cluttered, pleasingly conventional design draws a round of applause on curtain-up, and Luscombe has arranged the entry of the sated sextet very well: they waddle on like seals after feeding time … The play never fails. It’s a favourite of the reps (or was) and of amateur groups everywhere (still is). And there are moments that always guarantee a warm glow. But it could have been so much better."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

“Priestley’s clever comic idea is well executed, yet there is a danger - into which this production sometimes tumbles - of it all seeming a little dated and claustrophobically pat … This is never possible when the likes of Sam Kelly (perfect as the henpecked man) and Michele Dotrice are on stage. Miss ­Dotrice has the most nimble of faces … This show has a double-cream cast … Things are less happy when Roy Hudd is on stage as a drunken photographer. Lines, Roy! Lines! Rosemary Ashe over-acts as a dyed hussy … Miss Lipman is ­kitted up to resemble Eamon de Valera in drag. At one point, advancing menacingly on her husband, she actually does a goose step. It should be a ­triumph. Could be. If only she toned it down by 5 per cent … You will laugh. But you might enjoy it even more if director Christopher Luscombe imposed a touch more ­discipline on his stars.”

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

"Something about J B Priestley’s 1938 play seems conducive to de luxe comedy casting. Like its last West End outing in the mid-1990s, this revival boasts more comic names than most first-run television channels could muster … Christopher Luscombe is an accomplished director of stage comedies, lavishing care and attention but always in service of the laughs … As the termagant Clara Soppitt, Maureen Lipman pulls off the unusual feat of prowling gawkily, as if she were a vampire stork … Sam Kelly is pitch-perfect as her husband, the worm that turns. The sextet is completed in fine fettle by David Horovitch, Susie Blake, Michele Dotrice and most surprisingly Simon RouseLynda Baron also shines as a gleefully blunt-spoken charwoman. This may be a couple of hours of sentimental escapism as the jaws of austerity close on us, but when it is crafted with such mastery, who can begrudge it?”

Susannah Clapp

“Watching When We Are Married is like looking at a done-in old sofa that's been newly and lavishly upholstered. It's plushly covered, it seems inviting, but look underneath and there are the springs and stuffing bulging out … It's an evening that makes the theatre look impossibly antiquated - and not least because, in Christopher Luscombe's production, it is done as well as it could be … Simon Higlett's design - bathed in the maroon flush of a menopausal afternoon, busy with pictures and frilly lampshades and the glow of stained glass from the conservatory - gets a round of applause as soon as the curtain goes up. As does Roy Hudd when, having lumbered through the door as if he's about to bring the lintel with him, he starts to shimmy around the stage, adorning his prance with graceful twirls and hand gestures borrowed from the seraglio. And Maureen Lipman uses not only her arch dryness of voice, but an almost music-hall physical dexterity … Pity that she and others can't get divorced from this flabby play.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“Part of me wishes that Priestley had dug deeper. The tone remains comic throughout, and the exposure of these pillars of the community is largely benign. Ibsen, one feels, would have made far more of the dramatic situation. But it is hard to quarrel with such a good-natured play in which the pompous get their come-uppance, and a particularly henpecked husband suddenly sees the prospect of turning the tables on his wife … Christopher Luscombe’s affectionate production is packed to the gills with much-loved character actors. Chief among them is Maureen Lipman, in her element as the shrewish Clara Soppitt … There isn’t a dud performance in the ranks and this venerable play still delivers the comic goods with engaging panache.”

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

“We haven’t seen much of  J B Priestley’s sunny side recently … although When We Are Married (1938) is billed as a ‘Yorkshire farcical comedy’, it still pricks middle-class pomposity in true Priestley fashion. A line-up of notable Equity members of a certain age - among them Roy Hudd and Michele Dotrice - go at this with some gumption, although their casting raises one awkward question. Was it likely that so many couples in the Victorian era would have married when they were already, ahem, knocking 40? … Director Christopher Luscombe could usefully dig deeper into the emotion; Simon Higlett’s elegant drawing-room set was warmly applauded.”

Libby Purves
The Times

”The costume department at the Garrick has invented Blouse Acting. Not content with upholstering the women like an explosion in a curtain factory, they give Maureen Lipman as Clara Soppitt an extraordinary Act 2 top. Its pleats cascade with fearful independence from the shelving bosom, so that in her confrontations the blouse too moves from pouting triumph to deflated bewilderment. It is one of the finer moments in a fine evening, up there with Roy Hudd’s drunken Ormonroyd duetting with Lottie the barmaid, or Lynda Baron as the eavesdropping char … Priestley’s jolliest work may be a classic, but it’s not a dead cert … An audience with modern morals does risk taking its tidy ending as a smug affirmation of the very bourgeois values it mocks: its characters might well become those ‘despicable in-laws’. Not here, though. That world of corseted respectability is far enough away to be exotic, and this cast is joyfully accomplished … I cannot begin to describe Sam Kelly’s tubby, Herbert Soppitt: suffice to say, I may be in love.”

Michael Billington

"JB Priestley was always haunted by the smugness and hypocrisy of the Edwardian middle classes. In An Inspector Calls he treated the subject polemically. In this earlier play, written in 1938, he tackles it comically … Priestley's premise is simple enough: three Yorkshire couples discover, as they are about to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, that they were never legally married … The fun of the piece lies in the playing and, in Christopher Luscombe's lively revival, the key parts are in good hands. Sam Kelly as the downtrodden Soppitt memorably transforms himself from a man who looks like a melancholy walrus to a cuff-shooting figure quietly surprised at his own audacity. And Maureen Lipman is a total delight as his bullying wife … The other prize role is that of the tipsy local photographer, Henry Ormonroyd; and Roy Hudd now brings to it a lifetime of music-hall expertise … in the end, this is a popular comedy; and, when played as well as it is here, it confirms that it is one of the most durable of the last century.”


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