Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

When We Are Married by J.B. Priestley - The Shaw Festival

Cast of When We Are Married, Photo by Emily Cooper

My parents loved the Jackie Gleason Show that featured "the Honeymooners," Ralph and Alice Kramden, who lived in a dreary Brooklyn apartment building. During their bickering, Ralph, a bus driver (Gleason), would inevitably threaten his long-suffering wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows), with "One of these days Alice, POW! Right in the kisser!"

Groucho Marx suggested that "Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?" and Rita Rudner concluded that "I love being married. It's so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life." Socrates, the philosopher who drank hemlock, opined: "By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you'll become happy; if you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher."

The institution of marriage has long been a source of satire. In When We Are Married by J.B. Priestley at Shaw's Royal George Theatre, director Joseph Ziegler plays with not one but three sets of "honeymooners" who were all married together on the same day - as they set about to celebrate their silver (25th) wedding anniversary - or will they? The men are not lowly bus drivers but pillars of British society, so-called town fathers: hectoring Alderman Joseph Helliwell ( Thom Marriott) and his accommodating wife Maria ( Claire Jullien), stingy Councillor Albert Parker ( Patrick McManus) and his obliging wife Annie ( Catherine McGregor) and hen-pecked Mr. Herbert Sobbit ( Patrick Galligan) and his bossy wife Clara ( Kate Hennig).

Set in 1908 in the sitting room of Alderman Joseph Helliwell's house in Cleckleywyke, (kudos to set designer Ken MacDonald with his exquisite set) a fictional small town in the northern English county of Yorkshire, the evening unveils a stunning secret: through no fault of their own, none of the couples are legally married. Accordingly, each must wrestle with this situation, their 25-year-old relationships hilariously put to the test. The Bottom Line: do they really want to be married after all?

Shaw's Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell encapsulates their circumstances: "Like Shaw, J.B. Priestley loved to point a finger at those who took themselves and their "position" in society too seriously. He often did so dramatically but was also hugely effective with comedy. Here you will witness the sudden confusion and discomfiture of three self-satisfied married couples, possibly with empathy, perhaps with a glimmer of recognition (!) but certainly through gales of laughter."

Maxwell was right about the merriment and laughter. And although I never liked "The Honeymooners" and I thought this play too fluffy and silly, the audience simply loved it, responding with constant amusement and awarding the cast with a standing ovation at the end. Maybe they were cheering for marriage, which looks rather shaky throughout most of the play's action and barely outlasts divorce today. (Shaw's other production this season that features similar issues regarding marriage is The Philadelphia Story.)

The cast is typically solid. Priestly reserves the best lines for the men, the ladies most often responding to their initial serves, with the hired hands and extras surprisingly faring much better than the wives. Ruby ( Jennifer Dzialoszynski) is an eccentric and hilarious 15-year-old scullery maid and Mrs. Northrop ( Mary Haney) is a combative, no-holds-barred maid. Lottie Grady ( Fiona Byrne) a femme fatale, tries to latch on to the Alderman ("If I wasn't married...") and Henry ( Peter Krantz) plays a tipsy photographer who literally frames the play with a group shot of the couples at the end, replicating their first wedding picture. Fred ( Wade Bogert-O'Brien) is the young church organist who spills the beans about the invalid marriages and Kate Besworth as Nancy is his love interest. Norman Browning, Mayor of Cleckywyke and Peter Millard, the Reverend Mercer both get short shrift in the action.

Fiona Byrne as Lottie Grady and Peter Krantz as Henry Ormonroyd. Photo by David Cooper  Fiona Byrne as Lottie Grady, Thom Marriott as Alderman Joseph Helliwell and Claire Jullien as Maria Helliwell. Photo by Emily Cooper.  Kate Besworth as Nancy Holmes and Charlie Gallant as Gerald Forbes. Photo by David Cooper  Kate Hennig as Clara Soppitt, Claire Jullien as Maria Helliwell and Catherine McGregor as Annie Parker. Photo by David Cooper  Kate Hennig, Claire Jullien, Catherine McGregor, Patrick McManus, Thom Marriottl and Patrick Galligan   Peter Krantz as Henry Ormonroyd and Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Ruby Birtle. Photo by David Cooper

Immediately with the first lines, one realizes that Shaw's voice coaches have been working with the cast on their Yorkshire accents, difficult to fathom at times as we watch the relationships unfold, most cheering for the hen-pecked Patrick Galligan who gets slapped by his wife, Kate Hennig, but now emancipated, he gives her a Ralph Kramden special right back. Once docile Claire Jullien is prepared to jettison overbearing husband Thom Marriott and the suddenly dignified Catherine McGregor is ready to follow suit with her obnoxious husband Patrick McManus, but you know that it's all going to work out somehow in the end - just as Ralph and Alice make up each weekend on TV.

This light sitcom that we have seen repeated again and again in I Love Lucy and a host of similar TV shows might function as a good appetizer for some stronger Shaw works to come. As such, it compliments a fine sunny day in beautiful Niagara on the Lake.

Joseph Ziegler in his Director's Notes, says the play is set in Yorkshire, but it could be set just about anywhere. "Because I have been married a while myself, I can't help but see myself in many of the characters of this play, and in many of the relationships. And because of that, I've found working on this play to be embarrassingly exhilarating, or maybe exhilaratingly embarrassing. And funny! Being married is a very private thing. Very personal. And it's the personal side of married life that seems to have fascinated the playwright, ] .B. Priestley. He knew what he was talking about: he was married three times himself."

"It takes a long time and a lot of effort to make a marriage work. As Henry Orrnonroyd, a lapsed husband in the play says, optimistically: "If these three couples here have been married for twenty-five years and ... they're still sticking it, well, then I call 'em three happy couples." Well, that's one point of view. Watching the private, inner workings of the couples, we might think otherwise."

"Through Priestley's theatrical sleight-of-hand, the three couples are allowed to take a long, hard look at their marriages, which perhaps they've taken for granted. More than just their marriages are at stake here: their places in society, their sense of self-worth, their future happiness. Their wrangling and their perorations have been delighting audiences since Priestley wrote the play in 1938. Working on it, with this wonderful cast, has been a great pleasure. Enjoy!"

When We Are Married plays until Oct. 26 at the Royal George Theatre. 1-800-511-SHAW

2014 Season - Behind the Scenes at The Shaw

Personalities J.B. Priestley (1944)

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