When We Are Married Chichester Festival Theatre

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The Independent Culture
In Jude Kelly's Chichester production of When We Are Married, the award for best supporting performance has got to go to the wooden- legged sofa. Not to beat about the bush, two of the three wives - the loud one, played by Dawn French, and the sensitive one, played by Annette Badland - are like sumo wrestlers in frocks. Along with Alison Steadman, these redoubtable girls certainly put the "big" in Yorkshire bigwig. I kept thinking of the Thurber cartoon of a large lady looking down at a little bald man: "If you can keep a secret, I'll tell you how my husband died."

Of course, in JB Priestley comedy, these wives, who had a joint wedding, only "lose" their husbands in a notional manner when their silver anniversary celebrations are disrupted by the news that the young cleric who married them was under-qualified. Tellers of sanctimonious respectability, the couples have to face the fact that, for a quarter of a century, they have been living in sin.

What follows in this 1938 piece is enjoyable enough but now feels pretty tame. I don't say that I'm hankering for a Howard "Uncle Vanya" Barker revisionist take on the play - a When We Are (Married) in which the freedoms generated by the apparent rupture of the social fabric lead to outbreaks of lesbianism among the wives, cannibalism among the servants and to condescending Pirandellian games with a pipe-puffing Priestley figure. It's just that one would like something a little less predictably guaranteed to keep a large, reassuring, safety net spread out under the various re-examined relationships and returns to a cautiously re-adjusted status quo. God knows, the Shaw of Getting Married is tiresome, but even an injection of him wouldn't come amiss.

Kelly's cast are a mixed blessing. As the stingy, self-important councillor Parker, Roger Lloyd Pack wins this year's Dick Van Dyke trophy for authentic local accent - an ironic triumph, given that Parker is the character who would like to institute virtual apartheid against "la-di-dah" southerners. Dawn French as the eventually chastened battle axe is good in sequences - advancing on her spouse like a tank division or secretly downing a glass of port and following it with a whisky chaser swigged from the decanter. But you feel you are being offered a limited repertoire of gags rather than a fully realised individual, as compared with, say, the fine performances by Alison Steadman, and Paul Copley as the nicest of the husbands.

Chichester audiences love old troopers and are also greatly tickled by the spectacle of the lower orders getting above themselves, provided that the play returns them to roughly their original whereabouts. They receive the two pleasures for the price of one here with Dora Bryan, all quavering malice and bandy-legged squiffiness, as the char who uses the moral discomfiture of her employers to get in a bit of gleeful plate smashing and a few gloating home truths: "there's one or two faces 'ere that'd stop a clock, never mind a party". The other veteran is Leo McKern who, as the drunken photographer, shuffles through the play like a befuddled walrus. A convenient role for an oldster? You'd think so, were it not for the effectiveness of the serious moments, like the sudden outburst against the smug righteousness of the big wigs, to which McKern lends the vehement eloquence of a Sir Toby rebuking Malvolio.

n To 17 Aug (01243 784437)

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