Review: When We Are Married at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Guest review by Dave Parkinson (newly appointed “occasional Yorkshire guest reviewer”)

When We Are Married is a play by Bradford-born J.B. Priestley, performed by Halifax company Northern Broadsides led by Hull-born Barry Rutter, originally at York Theatre Royal and currently touring in Leeds – it doesn’t get much more Yorkshire than that!

Priestley is probably now best known for his “time plays” such as An Inspector Calls. These were viewed with suspicion when he wrote them between the wars, as it was felt a playwright mucking around with time was somehow cheating. Now of course ideas about the fluidity of time are relatively mainstream in both arts and science – if Priestley were alive today he might be writing Doctor Who

When We Are Married is a relatively conventional play written in 1938, but set in 1908 when Bradford was at the peak of its power in the wool trade, and is a fine drawing-room comedy with elements of farce. In 1908, three smug well-off couples in “Cleckleywyke” (clearly really Bradford) are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their joint wedding when they make a terrible discovery – the priest wasn’t properly registered and they were never married at all, a potential social catastrophe. So in a way the characters again find themselves thrown into an alternative reality, and one that, in another characteristic Priestley theme, offers them a chance of redemption – and the audience a lot of laughs.

Photo credit: Nobby Clark
Photo credit: Nobby Clark
I must admit that the play is nostalgic for me, as I knew Bradford back in the sixties, when it still at least remembered its glory-days. My relatives weren’t as successful as the Helliwells, Parkers and Soppits – but it wasn’t for lack of trying, and staging of the play reminded me of my Great Aunt’s front room! I can confirm that Priestley’s ear for Yorkshire character and dialogue is absolutely spot-on as I remember it, equal to that other great modern Yorkshire playwright, Alan Bennet.

I must also confess that Northern Broadsides are a favourite company, capable of considerable subtlety as in their very moving First World War tribute, An August Bank Holiday Lark. But they always seem happiest when “going in with their boots on” – and they certainly do that here. The play starts fairly slowly, as Priestley needs to establish his characters before he blows their world apart, including just how DULL they are (trust me on the historical accuracy of this one) – though things are enlivened by a bit of upstairs-downstairs action involving a sassy housekeeper and maid. But once the bombshell is dropped, things heat up rapidly and the play finally finishes in a flash. All the players are first rate, but what really stands out is the strength of the ensemble playing – some of the responses are so perfectly timed that the audience spontaneously applauded.

Photo credit: Nobby Clark
Photo credit: Nobby Clark
Director Barry Rutter (probably best known for directing Lenny Henry in Othello) sensibly nicks the best role for himself, the drunken photographer Ormonroyd who turns up to cover the event for the local paper. An alternative view of When We Are Married might see it as a kind of satyr play, with Ormonroyd embodying the spirit of mischief that comes to overturn the characters’ lives. At any rate, Rutter is clearly enjoying himself, and his sense of enjoyment seems to spread to the rest of the cast – and to the audience of course!

The play is hugely enjoyable, funny, celebratory, perhaps just a bit over the top – what could be more Yorkshire, and as any Yorkshireman will tell you, what could possibly be better than that?

When We Are Married tours until 10th December – if you get the chance, do go and see it.

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