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FringeReview UK 2017

When We Are Married

Lewes Little Theatre

Genre: Comedy, Theatre

Venue: Lewes Little Theatre, Lancaster Street


Low Down

Tony Bannister directs with David Williams as Associate Director. Following 1949 and 1998 productions, this joins the elect of plays produced three times.


Michael Folkard produces a faultless drawing room in a turquoise and dado-rail mauve design on white above it. Trevor Morgan’s early-electric lighting and discreet sound complete a superbly realised period interior. Anita Kettle supplies some of these, and costumes by Gerry Cortese and Alison Soudain. Rebecca Warnett furnishes wigs as well as a performance.


It was in 1938, one year after his greatest 1930s play, Time and the Conways, that J. B. Priestley wrote When We Are Married, a comedy set by contrast in 1908, roughly where many Priestley plays come to rest when they’re not undergoing time-shifts, or even (as in An Inspector Calls) when they are. Tony Bannister directs a strong cast with one or two welcome new faces to the Lewes Little team. Following 1949 and 1998 productions, this joins the elect of plays produced three times. David Williams’ work as Associate Director might account for some of the precision here too.


Michael Folkard produces a faultless drawing room (though as often with LLT the sofa’s too blocked up front) in a turquoise and dado-rail mauve design on white above it. Rich, but no longer gaudy Victorian furniture punctuates the scene in lighter walnut colours. One’s a drinks cabinet. If there’s one in a play, it usually goes off. Here it does to blissful effect. All these colours match Walter Sickert’s 1911 Ennui, though there’s little of that otherwise. Trevor Morgan’s early-electric lighting and discreet sound complete a superbly realised period interior edged at an angle with doors both centre and stage right, used effectively. The central doors feature surround coloured glass: it’s both dazzlingly beautiful and serves to show skulking auditors to scenes. Of Guild theatres, perhaps far more widely, only Brighton Little Theatre under Steve Adams’ designing hand can match this level.


Anita Kettle supplies some of these, and costumes by Gerry Cortese and Alison Soudain were bright, precise Edwardian flounces of confidence. Rebecca Warnett furnishes wigs as well as a bravura performance.


With comedy, the deliciously innocent hypocrisy Priestley excoriates elsewhere is barely disturbed. Three couples gather at the well-to-do Joseph and Maria Helliwells, he an Alderman no less, his pompous colleague Councillor Albert Parker and put-upon dogsbody Herbert Soppitt with respective wives Annie and Clara await the photographer and reporter. You soon realize there’s a mismatch: hectoring Clara might have been better suited to pontificating mean-pocketed Albert; gentle insightful Annie has previous with the equally sympathetic Herbert, who’s far stronger under his guise of submission than people imagine: except Annie.


Jennifer Henley gives the strongest performance of the three wives here: lucid, watchful, warmly sympathetic and part of the tiny scene that gifts a fleck of tragedy to the nest of mirth. Laura Fausner’s strong Maria is powerfully delivered, all the regality of host combined on occasion with outrage. She possesses the clarity and rationale of a matriarch delivering petit-fours. Sue Shephard is waspishly good, though milder-edged in her voice than you’d envisage Clara: it’s perhaps a conscious decision to make her final transition the more believable.


All three couples were married on this day September 5th, twenty-five years earlier in 1883 in a Methodist chapel; and they’ve been three pillars of it ever since, though drinking seems permitted. The problem is, as the smart Surrey organist Gerald Forbes hauled in to be chastised for courting an unknown girl reveals – is the marriage. They’re not, the blow-in pastor wasn’t qualified and meeting Forbes by chance confesses it, in a letter.


The unknown girl’s no other than the Helliwells’ niece Nancy Holmes (bubbly Caarmen Dupre), and Forbes is practically engaged to her but knows he’s disapproved of. In immaculate Edwardian whites – mistaken for Importance of Being Earnest flannels, but thirteen years on, now de rigeur with the smart middling sort – Forbes sprawls in an armchair. With supine arrogance he addresses his elders and as they think betters. It’s potentially a great scene: the young man threatened with expulsion despite (as Soppitt says) his excellent Messiah turns tables and they beg him to remain silent. He touchingly causes Helliwell to give the letter into Soppitt’s safekeeping, the one who spoke up for him.


Douglas Wragg’s understated decency has the rationale of the character perfectly and it’s quietly thrilling in an intimate scene later. Christyan James enjoys the right languor as Forbes though is a little relaxed in his arrogance, and doesn’t quite grasp the nettle of revenge and blackmail as ferally as he might. It’s a difficult role tonally, and deference upended is a thing forgot.


Confidences are extracted in vain because Christine Murphy’s excellent hired parlourmaid Mrs Northrop has heard everything and smashes a plate in triumph. Murphy’s performance is one of the finest, her deliberate crescendo of disdain and assertion of her moral superiority bangs another nail in the six peoples’ respectability. Murphy’s voice drums it metaphorically with her heel, as if on an insect. The town will know.


And the publicists – Darren Heather’s weary reporter Fred Dyson (a neat turn in repetitive type injury) and drunk photographer Henry Ormanyroyd have arrived to commemorate this happy event, replicating the same postures as a quarter-century back. Alas, sent away and not needed, Ormanroyd returns and finding no-one but the put-upon maid Ruby Birte (in Lucy Zara’s sparky gormlessness) proceeds to help himself to more of the sideboard than ever the inhabitants and their guests did.


Robert Hamilton as Ormanroyd embodies his part, gradating his voice from truculent disillusion through drunken disinhibition to a quasi-sobering state edged with the afterglow of the same release. There’s no overt acting-out, but man drunk in the middle way, taking himself up but never unredeemable when lucidity follows sleep. Hamilton’s effortless dominance, clarity of the right drunkenness is exhilarating. He steals the show and lights everything else.


The greater disrupter is Lottie Grady, Rebecca Warnett’s tour de farce of a variety-girl and part-time prostitute alighting on the Helliwells’ house hearing the news and claiming Joseph for herself since he’d declared if he was free he’d marry her. Now it appears he is. How this is resolved her relation to her friend Ormanroyd, is one of the masterly unravellings of which Priestley’s capable. the photographer discovers he’s been sacked but he’s rendered such a service by his crucial discovering to them of his own case, that he’ll not be in want.


There’s a genteel wreckage. Curiously despite Maria Helliwell’s avowals to return to mother leaving the field and house to the hussy, miraculously returns. Fausner’s strong projection is ideal at conveying her entitlement wronged, scorned and righted again. Soppitt has stood up to his colleagues and his hectoring wife. More, he’s discovered Annie Parker feels they might even take a path to happiness together. The Lophakin-like scene where Wragg and Henley explore their possible realignment – she urges him to take the initiative – is conveyed with infinite tenderness, regretfully in their eyes. They feel residual ties and as it hangs in the balance a tiny part of your heart cracks.


David Rankin as the pompous Parker has the pitch and yaw – and crucially the voice – of the boring Councillor pontificating acres of bombast, now finally clipped short by his wife who emerging from her brief tryst at least demands what she’s been lacking all these years. Mark Bostock’s fine upstanding bluster works urbanely for Joseph Helliwell.


Wragg’s Soppitt too asserts himself over Shephard’s Clara. There’s quick and perfectly-cast work from David Parton as the batty vicar called on to perform hasty marriages – you’re convinced there’ll be four to perform as the young couple egged on by Annie, ought to join the throng. Events though overtake everyone and the young couple can happily fend for themselves.


This is an enchanting play, with a small bitter aftertaste only lurking under the candy coating. Priestley’s lines are so beautifully constructed that they often carry the performance. Happily they get much more than that here: it’s an example of LLT ensemble-work mostly perfectly fired and romping neatly into the annals.