Chichester Festival Theatre
Opened 30 July, 1996

Jude Kelly has perhaps been more generally admired of late as an artistic director than for the shows which she has personally helmed. It may, then, be a relief in some quarters to be able to bestow praise freely upon her latest show. Although presented in rolling Sussex, When We Are Married is located firmly on Kelly's familiar turf of the West Riding of Yorkshire, in a turn-of-the-century small town where municipal and church office often coincide and where the officials in question congratulate themselves not on presenting the best Messiah among the local pre-Christmas offerings, but the first.

J.B. Priestley's 1938 comedy shares some of the same preoccupations as An Inspector Calls a decade later; primarily, how the self-satisfied bourgeoisie react when an outsider arrives to question their social foundations. In this case, lah-di-dah southerner Gerald Forbes (Chris Larkin), the chapel organist, turns up on the silver wedding anniversary of three such couples with the bombshell that the parson who married them was not authorised to perform weddings: technically, these pillars of the establishment have been living in sin for a quarter of a century. This is fertile ground, liberally sown with comic seeds by Priestley and diligently tended by Kelly.

At this point a reviewer is hard pressed to avoid descending into a litany of name-checking, since the cast is composed almost entirely either of actors instantly recognisable or familiar faces to whom not everyone can match names. Alison Steadman plays Mrs Helliwell as a harder-edged distant relation of Jane Austen's Mrs Bennet; as her alderman husband and the host of the anniversary party, the excellent Gary Waldhorn (best known as "that bloke from The Vicar Of Dibley") frantically and vainly tries to co-ordinate a response to the news, only to be torpedoed by the arrival of Shirley Anne Field as a woman of easy virtue come to force him to honour his earlier half-promises of marriage.

The other two couples are each composed of a pompous, hectoring partner (Roger Lloyd Pack and Dawn French respectively) and their timid, put-upon spouse (Annette Badland and Paul Copley) in each case, the worm turns to deliver a few home truths. Copley is terrific as the downtrodden Herbert Soppitt, risking the occasional furtive joke even when at his most oppressed; French is magnificently Dawn French, yet kept in admirable check except for two or three characteristic moments of mugging or gesturing (such as holding on, white-knuckled, to an occasional table to avoid being dismissed from the room while the menfolk fret in secret).

As bibulous, elderly Yorkshire Argus photographer Henry Ormonroyd, Leo McKern is a bit of a disappointment: although his timing and characterisation are well in place, years of stage and screen rumbling combine with the requirement of acting drunk throughout to reduce his voice as often as not to a semi-intelligible gurgle. Dora Bryan's similarly slurred Liz Smith impersonation as the stout-drinking charwoman, too, is quite eclipsed by the fine frenzied gormlessness of Elizabeth Chadwick as housemaid Ruby.

All-star productions seldom equal the sum of their parts, but When We Are Married strikes a keen balance between delineating individuals and providing strong ensemble scenes, and in particular Kelly orchestrates the free-for-all arguments in the play extremely well. As the big-name centrepiece of Duncan Weldon and Derek Jacobi's 1996 Chichester main-house season, it delivers the goods and no mistake.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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