When We are Married by J. B. Priestley

Contact Us

BBC Radio 7, 16 January 2011
Billed as a "repertory classic" by the Radio 7 announcer, and frequently revived in London's West End - at the time of writing a revival had just closed at the Garrick Theatre with Maureen Lipman, Michele Dotrice and Roy Hudd - When We are Married contains at least eight meaty roles for men and women alike. Matthew Walters' radio production amply emphasized the point: Mesdames Helliwell, Parker and Soppitt were played by three redoubtable women (Nicola Pagett, Gwen Taylor, Brenda Blethyn), supported by Michael Jayston, Alun Armstrong and Alan Bennett as their husbands. Polly James played the ageing floozie Lottie, with Elizabeth Spriggs as the inebriate cook Mrs. Northrop. Peter Woodthorpe had an agreeable cameo as the photographer Henry Ormondroyd, a role once played by Priestley himself. Occasionally the Yorkshire accents seemed a little wobbly, but it seldom mattered in a production where role-reversals counted for everything. Herbert eventually triumphed over his wife, who hitherto had dominated his every move; Councillor Parker was revealed to be a miser, while Alderman Helliwell had a roving eye, preferring Lottie's more immdiate amatory gratifications to those offered by his wife. Ormondroyd started the play as a peripheral character, but eventually became a deus ex machina, as he proved beyond doubt that the three couples were legally married.
In spite of the fun, however, Walters' production contained serious undertones. The theme of class-conflict was to be explored in Priestley's later plays such as An Inspector Calls (1947), focusing in particular on the complacency of the urban gentry as they congratulate themselves on their achievements, without giving a thought to those whom they have exploited. However the same issues are evident in When We are Married: the Helliwells' cavalier treatment of Mrs. Northrop (as they threaten to stop some of her wages for breakages) adumbrates the way in which the Birling family (in An Inspector Calls) abuse Daisy Renton (aka Eva Smith). Priestley remains acutely conscious of social distinctions in early twentieth century Britain, a world which - for the gentry at least - appeared resistant to change. The two world wars brought about a radical rethink in attitudes ... or did they? The fact that Priestley returned to the issue in An Inspector Calls would suggest otherwise. Perhaps that's why both An Inspector Calls and When We are Married have remained so perennially popular; they not only offer great parts for actors, but they dramatize in different ways the social tensions that persist today.