When We Are Married, Garrick Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Thanks to Stephen Daldry's celebrated Expressionist version of An Inspector Calls we are, perhaps, in danger of looking a tad snootily on J B Priestley's simpler fare, such as this trusty repertoire staple.

But as Christopher Luscombe's delightful West End revival richly demonstrates, When We Are Married (1938) anticipates, by almost a decade, the thematic concerns of An Inspector Calls, albeit in a mode of gleeful hilarity.

In both plays, Priestley attacks bourgeois hypocrisy by showing how sanctimonious pillars of the community react when the foundation of their social status is imperilled by an outsider. Set in 1908,When We Are Married kicks off from an inspired premise. Three couples are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversaries in a smug atmosphere of port and prosperity (the plush upholstered set wins a round of applause). Then the "la-di-da" organist produces proof that they were never legally hitched. The censorious bigwigs have to face the fact that, for a quarter of a century, they have been living in sin.

The state totters. It's a lovely touch that the three reproving wives are informed of their downfall by Lynda Baron's beefy char, who has eavesdropped on the news, and relishes the chance of reminding her "betters" of their humble origins. Luscombe's cast offer a feast of veteran comedy acting as worms turn, home truths are delivered and skeletons, in the form of Rosemary Ashe's garish Blackpool floosie, clatter out of cupboards.

The audience can't help but cheer when dumpy, henpecked Herbert Soppitt (all cowed good-nature in Sam Kelly's lovely portrayal) defies his domineering wife and takes lip-smacking pleasure in a forbidden drink. Maureen Lipman turns in a nicely understated performance as this pursed-lipped battleaxe.

Fusing pathos and drollery, Michele Dotrice deploys superb comic timing in the scene where, with an ironically saintly patience and emphasis, Annie Parker, the councillor's wife, tries to pierce through the impregnable conceit of her pompous, speechifying husband (Simon Rouse) in order to explain to him how he has stunted her life with his stinginess and the fact that he's "very dull and very, very dreary." A hugely enjoyable evening.