October 29, 2010 11:23 pm

When We Are Married, Garrick Theatre, London

Something about J B Priestley’s 1938 play seems conducive to de luxe comedy casting. Like its last West End outing in the mid-1990s, this revival boasts more comic names than most first-run television channels could muster. In truth, it is a finely constructed piece: 14 roles, almost all with their due quota of delicious moments, and a central half-dozen in which individual and ensemble delights combine.

Christopher Luscombe is an accomplished director of stage comedies, lavishing care and attention but always in service of the laughs – indeed, so much attention that, when the curtain first rises, Simon Higlett’s set design of a well-to-do Edwardian Yorkshire parlour gets a round of applause to itself.

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The three main couples, all featuring one self-satisfied and one, well, redeemable partner, are gathered to celebrate their joint silver wedding anniversary, only to be greeted by the news that the locum pastor who joined them on that day was not duly authorised to perform marriages, and so for the past 25 years they have been living in ... no, they can’t say it.

It’s a fertile set-up, both for comedy and for Priestley’s point, not unlike that in his An Inspector Calls, that our responsibilities to each other go beyond the merely formal. When one of them reassures another, “You’ve been the same as a good wife to him”, under the laugh we appreciate that just fulfilling spousal duties with diligence does not, in personal terms, add up to being a husband or wife.

As the termagant Clara Soppitt, Maureen Lipman pulls off the unusual feat of prowling gawkily, as if she were a vampire stork. No wonder Roy Hudd’s drunken press photographer manages at least a quintuple take on being confronted by her. Sam Kelly is pitch-perfect as her husband, the worm that turns. The sextet is completed in fine fettle by David Horovitch, Susie Blake, Michele Dotrice and most surprisingly Simon Rouse, best known for years as a grim Detective Chief Inspector on ITV’s The Bill. Lynda Baron also shines as a gleefully blunt-spoken charwoman.

This may be a couple of hours of sentimental escapism as the jaws of austerity close on us, but when it is crafted with such mastery, who can begrudge it?

4 star rating

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