MY WEEK (July 24): A scandalous surprise at a silver anniversary celebration

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With divorce rates on the rise and stories about “divorce parties” in the news, it’s nice to see a play from an era when marriage was taken seriously.

On Wednesday, July 16, I watched Ifield Barn Theatre’s production of When We Are Married by J.B Priestley. It was opening night so there were a few fluffed lines and the addition of David Burton affected the production slightly. The actor kindly took over the role of Mr Helliwell at very short notice, so he was using his script. However, I still enjoyed the show.

Here’s my review:

When We Are Married tells the story of three married couples who find out that they are not legally married while celebrating their silver wedding anniversary.

This revelation causes much hilarity as the characters examine cracks in their relationships and consider alternative lifestyles. Priestley’s script, still sharp and witty after almost 80 years, uses well-observed comedy to explore early 20th century notions of decency.

The younger actors – Robert King, Laura Sharvell and Gareth Burke – do fairly well with the dialogue. They appear slightly wooden in the early scenes, but loosen up and improve towards the end of the first act.

The older cast members fare better. The six performers playing the couples – Clare Hall, Steve Mills, David Burton, Sue Middleton, Martin Livesey and Debra Cornell – have a believable camaraderie with each other, successfully conveying a dynamic, yet relaxed friendship that has lasted for decades.

Steve Mills is particularly strong as Councillor Albert Parker, a man convinced of his own decency and puffed up with his sense of achievement. It’s a great moment when his “wife” Annie (Clare Hall) tells him he’s dreary with ego-shattering frankness.

Paula Mayne makes the best impression as belligerent housekeeper Mrs Northtrop, rudely yelling at her employers then becoming outraged when they sack her.

The delightful Jaime Guvench gives a memorable performance too in a completely different way. She plays Ruby, the vivacious maid who makes up for her simplicity with boundless enthusiasm.

Interestingly, the side characters contribute to the action instead of feeling extraneous. Bob Comolli gets a lot of laughs as a drunk photographer, while Jan Osborne makes the audience cringe as the subtly nasty Lottie Grady.

The detailed set design works well too, firmly convincing audience members that they’re looking at scenes from 1908.