I feel like the much-loved Northern Broadsides’ last two productions of King Lear and The Merry Wives, while hitting the marks in some places, really didn’t seem to be hitting the rest. Sacrificing attention to detail and atmosphere in exchange for giving their pieces a distinct northern flavour in an attempt to smash certain stereotypes, it seemed like the Broadsides’ power was beginning to dwindle, and I feared this would continue to be a common trait in their future work. Heading into York Theatre Royal’s Main House with these thoughts buzzing around my head, I wasn’t sure what to expect from their new production of J.B Priestley’s classic comedy When We Are Married, directed by Barrie Rutter.
When We Are Married is a domestic comedy set in 1908, in a house belonging to a dull, seen-better-days couple, Alderman Joseph Helliwell and his wife Maria (Mark Stratton and Geraldine Fitzgerald). They’ve got two other rather dull married couples joining them: the Soppitts (Steve Huison and Kate Anthony) and the Parkers (Adrian Hood and Sue Devaney). They’re all celebrating their joint wedding anniversary of 25 years, but all isn’t well when a young man named Gerald (Luke Adamson) pops into the house and tells them that their marriages were never authorised.
So did the Broadsides step up and prove that they’re not losing their touch? Well, I’m very pleased to tell you that they certainly did. There are some really lovely performances here, composed of stellar characterisations and excellent comic timing that makes the most of Priestley’s straightforward, no-nonsense text that gradually reveals the back stories of each character, much to the audience’s delight.
Rutter is on fine form here as an alcohol-loving Yorkshire Argus photographer, bringing a lovely and infectious dynamic energy to the stage. His fellow performers feed off this, and the three husbands are a trio of well-balanced, well-considered performances in their own right. Occasionally, there are times when I think things could be slightly sharper: character responses are sometimes sluggish, though I have a feeling this will be ironed out when the company hits its stride with the piece on its upcoming tour. At times, some directorial decisions also seem a bit out of place. When Gerald tells the three men that their marriages are all false, the stakes for the characters rise dramatically, and Gerald takes perhaps a little too much delight in taunting men with much more power than him, even in a situation where he’s ostensibly in control.
That’s the only thing that slightly jars, however. The rest of the production is wonderfully executed by the cast, while the creative team have also done a brilliant job helping to bring Priestley’s play-world to life. Jessica Worrall’s set design is refreshingly neat and tidy, and creates an inviting domestic environment that we can peer into and watch the chaos unfold in. Further evoking the play-world are her costumes, which neatly brings together a pleasant visual aesthetic, while Tim Skelly’s lighting design helps to top off a well-considered scenography that rounds the production off.
Minor performance niggles aside, When We Are Married is a solid and successful effort from Northern Broadsides. They’ve proven themselves as a company that tell their stories with soul and northern charm. This production doesn’t try to smash stereotypes in the way that their previous efforts have done. Rather, it merely showcases the uniqueness and power of live performance.
Northern Broadsides create a highly comedic and warm live experience that is a joy to share with other audiences. I just hope they keep this up, and they continue in this enjoyable vein.
When We Are Married is playing at York Theatre Royal until 24 September, and is on tour afterwards. For more information and tickets, visit the York Theatre Royal website.
Photo: Nobby Clark