Review: When We Are Married, York Theatre Royal
When you’re born and bred Yorkshire, there’s something very satisfying about watching a play where the characters have strong Yorkshire accents. So I surprised myself during the opening scenes of Northern Broadsides’ production of JB Priestley’s 1938 classic, farcical comedy When We Are Married when a sharp alarm bell sounded ‘stereotype’ in the back of my head.
The entrance of over-the-top Ruby Birtle, a 15-year-old servant girl with a comically sweet lack of etiquette and manners, set my teeth on edge. ‘Not this portrayal, again,’ I thought. ‘Not in my own county, surely?’ It’s an automatic chip-on-shoulder reaction to any instance in which The North is depicted as rough, uneducated, and working class.
However, I soon found myself immersed in the play and I started to let my hardened Northern guard down. My shoulders dropped, it became a celebration of laughing at oneself, of recognising Yorkshireness, and everyone in the audience was in on the joke. I began to recognise Ruby-ness in people I went to school with, and I loved them for it. I found I was watching my aunties, my uncles, and god, yes, my mum (sorry mum). As I watched the la-di-daas of the church community (I was brought up a Methodist) and the boastful civic pride of a Yorkshire town, all of it crystallised into the kind of humour and physical comedy that can’t offend.
When We Are Married centres on three couples, all celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. Without warning, they are surprised to find they are not actually married at all and so the rules are turned on their heads and each must learn the value of their marriage. Truths emerge, fights and scaldings are incurred and lessons learned.
It takes an incredible amount of skill to pull off farcical comedy. In fact, it takes a huge amount of energy to keep a production moving when it is set in one room of a house and relies entirely on the characters to maintain the momentum. The actors need to be skilled with body language, with facial expression and comedy timing, allowing the audience to be in on the joke and making space for laughs. I was most impressed by Steve Huison’s portrayal of hen-pecked Herbert Soppitt (not least because he appears to be able to burp on cue), but the way he folded in on himself said everything about a character living in the shadow of his wife, and what a wife. I wouldn’t mess with Kate Antony’s terrifying severe Clara Soppitt. Geraldine Fitzgerald is wonderfully homely and Barrie Rutter’s drunk Henry Ormanroyd is something to behold.
There was a touch of nervousness from the actors, but the laughs came, the audience absorbed the atmosphere and joined in with clapping, singing, and having a ‘bit of a do’. In a play like this, the silliness needs to be embraced entirely; the audience will feel it if it’s not.
Is it a little long? Perhaps, at two and a half hours including a short interval. That is a lot of farce and loud laughs. I think there was room in there to look at how the characters had become enmeshed in marriages that were not perfect in the first place, to explore the roles we receive when we marry. But that might have changed the atmosphere, pulling us away from something distracting and light-hearted.
I have never been disappointed with Rutter’s Northern Broadsides company, their productions are always innovative, interesting and, dare I say it, entertaining. There is room in the art world for entertainment and not just thought provocation. This play is daring, but daring in a different way to normal. It dares to be a farcical, old fashioned comedy with audience participation and an ending which is unrealistic, but happy. And who doesn’t love a happy ending?
Images by Nobby Clark
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