When We Are Married review – Barrie Rutter toasts Priestley perennial

York Theatre Royal
Northern Broadsides offer a surprisingly genial take on the tale of three couples whose silver wedding party descends into confusion

When Barrie Rutter launched Northern Broadsides nearly 25 years ago, he issued a tirade against the complacency of “velvet theatre” to which his hard-as-nails ensemble would provide a plain-speaking alternative.

Yet there’s more than a touch of velvet about Rutter’s production of JB Priestley’s stoutly patrician Yorkshire comedy. Jessica Worrall’s design presents the final word in quality upholstery; every surface of the home belonging to West Riding alderman Joseph Helliwell is encased in a sumptuous flock pattern, including the floor.

It is within this buff, port-and-cigars atmosphere that the Helliwells have gathered with their friends, the Parkers and the Soppitts, for all three couples to celebrate 25 years of marriage. But it then emerges that the couples took their joint vows before an unlicensed parson.

The horror, embarrassment and giddy liberation this revelation provokes is played to genial effect. Sue Devaney’s mousy Annie Parker is particularly pleasing for the subdued manner in which she informs her tight-fisted windbag of a husband, played with orotund self-importance by Adrian Hood, that she would rather decline his renewed offer of proposal.

Yet the wider impact of this social upheaval has barely been hinted at before it is merrily quashed with a crowd-pleasing chorus of I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside. Northern Broadsides might once have been intent on tearing the flock from the walls; now there’s a surprising willingness to paper over the cracks.

• At York Theatre Royal until 24 September. Box office: 01904 623568. Then touring.

Contributor

Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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