First published in 1938 and set 30 years previously, J B Priestley’s comedy of manners is as delightful as ever.
Three Yorkshire couples, who fancy themselves as being at the higher end of society, are each celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, having been married in a joint ceremony 25 years earlier. After a quarter century, each seems happy in the place in which they have settled, be it in their respective marriages or among the town’s social strata. But when their chapel’s new organ master brings some news that means the weddings were never official, and so for 25 years they have not been married at all, each is forced to reappraise their position.
Like all good comedies, the story is a hair’s breadth away from drama. One could easily imagine Priestley’s script being played with a wry, bittersweet, Alan Bennett-style pathos. Here, though, under Christopher Luscombe’s direction, the production goes for out and out comedy, with a cast that is able to wring out every laugh with every line, every look, every finely judged bit of comedy business.
Of the three couples whose marital lives face upheaval, Sam Kelly stands out as Herbert Soppitt, a man who for two and a half decades has been hen-pecked by the imperious Clara (Maureen Lipman) but who finally finds his voice, while Susie Blake is magnificent as the woman who is most prepared to stand by her “husband” until she finds that he may not have been so upright in the meantime.
While all six of the main characters impress so much, the ensemble around them excels also. In any comedy that revolves around class (or the lack of it) the servants often get the best lines and that is especially true here: in the hands of Lynda Baron as eavesdropping charlady Mrs Northrop and particularly Jodie McNee as motormouthed maid Ruby Birtle, Priestley’s dialogue sparks along superbly.
Roy Hudd’s intoxicated photographer and Rosemary Ashe’s blowsy Blackpool barmaid are excellent cats to put among the Yorkshire pigeons, and designer Simon Higlett has created a sumptuous Victorian drawing room set for the farce to unfold in. But the major star of the night is McNee, who steals every scene and deservedly so.