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When We Are Married

by on 18 May 2022

Avoid Being Void

When We Are Married

by J.B. Priestley

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Theatre until 21st May

Review by Alex Tustain

In 1908, when this play was set, imagine the consequences of discovering, after 25 years, that your church marriage had been conducted by someone unauthorised to do so and it would seem your marriage was null and void!  You have been ‘living in sin’ for 25 years!   This is what happens to three couples upstanding in their small Yorkshire community and of course the consequences of this to the individual couples and their families would have been devastating and shocking to the core, to their standing in the community.   Add to this a small community where gossip travels fast, especially when you have a less than honest and most indiscrete housekeeper to spread it!

This is the premise of Priestley’s play.  It starts with the 25th wedding anniversary celebration of the three couples – in the years since, the gentleman have risen to become an Alderman, a Councillor and a respected professional, and their marriages settled into varying degrees of tolerance for each other.   But they have always remained friends with each other.   No mention is made of any children, which is interesting, except once when there is a comment about how the son would be removed from the grammar school if it was found out that the parents had been unmarried.   Such would have been the morals of the time!

Into this mix comes Gerald (Jacob Taylor), the new young organist of the Chapel, where the couples were supposed to have been married.  He is having a clandestine affair with the young niece of Alderman Helliwell (played convincingly by Geraint Thompson), and the men are keen to admonish him for being seen out late ‘with girls’!   But instead he drops this bombshell!   And to add to the comedy, all seeing all hearing housekeeper, Mrs Northrop (Jenny Hobson) , and drunken local newspaper photographer Henry Ormonroyd (Daniel Wain) .

What Priestley wants to play with of course is how all the different couples react to such shocking news and how this might affect or make them question their relationships with each other.   But I am not quite sure this is properly reflected or explored in the text.  The first two Acts spend much time setting up the plot and the characters and all their little vicissitudes and this only leaves Act three, the shortest Act by quite a way, to explore this further.   Priestley therefore only seems to explore his central theme superficially and I think it is a lost opportunity.   It is almost as though the play doesn’t really know whether to highlight the comedy of this astounding discovery and the shock and awe in the community (even the Mayor appears briefly to congratulate Alderman Helliwell) or to look at the far more serious side of how does a couple really feel about each other!  On the whole, I think TTC’s production this week at Hampton Hill Playhouse fell a little into this trap.  

The set and the costumes, designed by Priya Virdee and Mags Wrightson respectively (and all of their teams – too many to mention here) set things up beautifully.  Priya has managed to really use and give width to the TTC stage and the period detail in the set and the dressing was faultless.  Mags costumes were also subtly and cleverly colour coordinated to give a great sense of the whole.  One touch which I loved was when Lottie Grady (the ‘other’ woman) makes an appearance in a bold shade of pinks and reds, which contrasted so aptly with the paler shades of pinks and beige of the other ladies, and this theme ran through the whole cast. 

I am not quite sure I got the same sense of cohesion from the cast as a whole though.  There were some lovely individual performances but taken a whole it was a bit uneven.    Matilda Thomas, as the young housemaid Ruby Birtles stood out and gave an engaging and well balanced portrayal of naivety and enthusiasm.  I also liked Samantha McGill as Lottie Grady, the woman who had clearly had a brief affair with at least one of the husbands, and appeared wanting to marry Alderman Helliwell, until she discovered from his ‘wife’ Maria Helliwell that maybe marriage wasn’t as glamorous as was made out!   There was also a nice authentic cameo from David Robins as the Reverend Mercer, who comes ostensibly to see if he can put things right before the secret is out!  Daniel Wain was convincing as the progressively more drunk photographer.   It’s always hard to play drunk and his performance was well judged and just about stayed on the side of not overacting!   Jacob Taylor also provided an understated and genuine performance as the earnest young organist Gerald.    Finally, Jenny Hobson, as Mrs Northrop, the housekeeper, generally brought out the fun in this, one of the play’s more engaging and more mischievous characters.  All of the three couples were appropriate in their manners and habits of the time and the men suitably ‘stiff upper lip’.

There were some well performed and astutely directed sections – such as the complete reversal of power when Gerald tells the men of his unexpected and unwelcome discovery; and the section towards the end when Maria Helliwell threatens to leave her ‘husband’  (an honest performance by Ruth Chaperlin) and tells Lottie Grady what marriage is really like.  

This is a play of its time – it could be regarded as dated now, in the 21st C where many of the morals and mores it portrays are unfamiliar.    But director Michelle Hood understands her period and her drama, and really skilfully transports us back to the ideas and expectations of 1908.    But on the whole, throughout, there were sections that needed more energy, more pace and more differentiation.   This might have brought out the comedy more and provided a better contrast with the reflective sections of the play and those moments of comedy, which are definitely there, in some witty writing and delightful characterisation from Priestley.   I am sure as the run progresses the cast can build their confidence and find more fun in this play, accurately and well portrayed by Michelle Hood and her cast.

Alex Tustain, May 2022

Photography by Sarah J Carter

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