Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Shaw Festival Review: When We Are Married

Ladies, it’s time to call your BFFs, pack up the car, and go for a road trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see When We Are Married, one of The Shaw Festival’s gems this season.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: July 14th, 2014 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

Shaw Festival Review: When We Are Married

Ladies, it’s time to call your BFFs, pack up the car, and go for a road trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see When We Are Married, one of The Shaw Festival’s gems this season. This farcical comedy written by the prolific J. B. Priestly in 1938 will make you laugh out loud and then provide the perfect fodder for debate and discussion over a great bottle of local wine. When We Are Married is one of Priestly’s most popular comedies and has stood the test of time because it presents us with the classic ‘what if’ scenario and raises issues about marriage and relationships that are as relatable now as they ever were.

When We Are Married takes place in Yorkshire in 1908, and as you would expect in Edwardian England, all the ‘isms’ are alive and well – classism, sexism, etc. Among the upper classes, reputation and status make up the currency of the day, and marriage and church are the institutions that provide the respectability that is needed to cement one’s standing in the community. It is a tightly wound world so when things begin to spin out of control, it’s fun to watch as characters unravel and traditional roles are turned on their heads. Priestly wrote a situation comedy before any existed and highlighted the oppressiveness of prescribed gender roles and expectations when status quo still reigned. He also pokes fun at the smugness and hypocrisy of British social climbers. And although that all may seem such a long time ago, if we are honest, we would admit that these people look and feel like individuals who we could be sitting with in our own living rooms.

The plot line is now familiar and simple. Three couples who were married in the same chapel on the same day come together to celebrate their Silver Wedding anniversary. They are pillars of the community, two of the men sit on the Town Council and all three men are Church officials. What are they to do when they discover that the vicar who married them was not authorized to do so? Blackmail, a local paper that arrives to write the story about their 25 years of marital bliss, a doorbell that never stops, and a drunken photographer, all add to the mayhem that erupts. It could be cliché and chaotic if not for Priestley’s intelligent writing, a wonderful ensemble of talented actors, and precise direction that kept the pace steady and the laughs coming.

Ken MacDonald creates a richly-decorated drawing room where the entire play is set. The clever design allows for the dynamic flow of people and dialogue. Joseph Ziegler successfully manages to balance the frantic tempo of some scenes with intimate moments, expertly creating a lively comedy that raises fundamental questions that most married individuals have asked themselves at some point in their relationship.

Joseph and Maria Helliwell played by Claire Jullien and Thom Marriott are the hosts to this raucous affair. Kate Hennig is the judgemental and overbearing Clara Soppitt and Patrick Galligan is her beleaguered but gentle husband. The self-absorbed and mean spirited Albert Parker is brought to life by Patrick McManus. His oppressed and resentful wife, Annie, is Catherine McGregor. These veteran actors skilfully create believable yet very different characters with unique vulnerabilities, relating to and connecting with each other to produce a perfectly harmonious commotion. Adding a punch of colour and calamity to this comic symphony is Peter Krantz’s delightful portrayal of the drunken photographer who is determined to replicate the photograph he took of these three couples on their wedding day. Shaw newcomer, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, is truly impressive as Ruby Birtle- the cheeky young ‘slavey’ in the Helliwell household. She wins over the audience with her highly engaging portrayal of the spirited yet pragmatic young servant who is trying to keep the household together in the absence of the housekeeper, showing off her exceptional comic timing and aptitude for creating a complex character in a supporting role.

When We Are Married is a classic comedy that has rarely been out of repertory since it was first produced. If it feels familiar, it is because it became the blueprint for many movie and TV plotlines. In the 1930s, Priestly not only wrote fourteen plays but also visited the United States regularly where he wrote film scripts and hung out with such Hollywood greats as Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, other masters of the art of combining broad humour with social commentary. So it is no accident when you go into the Royal George Theater to watch what you expect to be an entertaining little farcical comedy, walk out with a smile on your face, and then see it become a conversation starter that could lead to a fascinating discussion about love, marriage, gender roles, and the pressures of living in a materialistic, class-conscious society. Then go shopping on Queen Street and buy yourself a hat at Beau Chapeau, the greatest hat shop in the province. Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same – unless, of course, you are one of the characters in When We Are Married.

Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is now available. For more information, visit www.cowalkers.com.


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