Network Theatre is a fascinating nugget of theatrical history tucked away under Waterloo Station. Described as London’s Secret Community Theatre you might easily spend your whole working life missing Lower Road as it disappears into the gloom under the station’s arches. A group of committed members put on four or five shows a year and participate in the Vault Festival, providing an opportunity for amateur theatre to be performed professionally in the heart of London. Originally built to provide workers of British Rail with a chance to meet and engage in leisure pursuits it has now become a theatre that caters for anybody who works in London, whether to perform, direct, help backstage or attend as audience.
The current production is J B Priestley’s When We Are Married, directed by Fred Johnson. Dealing with the one of Priestley’s favourite themes, the hypocrisy and stuffiness of the pompous Yorkshire businessmen in Edwardian England, Priestley is supposed to have said of the play when it was first performed in 1938 it was ‘A distraction from the state of Europe for an hour or two’ – slightly dated the play might be but Priestley’s words still ring true.
Three couples are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversaries. All married on the same day in the same chapel, they have remained friends. However, beneath the surface everything in the garden is not so rosy. Alderman Joseph Helliwell is having an affair, Herbert Soppit is hen pecked and physically abused by his wife, while Councillor Albert Parker is a stingy misanthrope, who treats his wife like a doormat. They discover the clergyman who married them was never ordained and this leads to a whole series of complications and revelations that make up the storyline of the play. The play itself is quite flawed. It has a very slow start, with the usual introducing of all the characters which is common to a farce, whilst the final act crams in far too much, presenting added complexities to the story that are never fully developed whilst other characters have a volte face that is quite unbelievable.
Putting aside my own feelings about the play, this production is extremely well cast. The relationships and reactions to each new piece of information, the body language between the couples and their intonation creates light and shade within their interactions which clearly helps to show their characters. Particularly noteworthy are Moira Cane as Annie Parker and Lee Copp as Herbert Soppitt, who are both undermined by their spouses and leave the audience cheering when they finally turn around and tell their other half exactly what they think of them. The contrast in the way they speak is key, Cane’s determination to no longer allow her husband to treat her so badly is shown with a quiet resilience in her responses whilst Copp’s forcefulness contrasts well with his earlier quiet voice. Steve Elliott as Joseph Helliwell is also particularly worthy of mention. With his blustering attacks on anyone who crosses him, he presents the alderman’s self-righteousness extremely effectively and his affair with Lottie reminds us of Priestley’s dislike of the pompous aldermen at the time, which is also reflected in the odious Alderman Meggarty of An Inspector Calls. Kate Hannam as Clara Soppitt, gives a strong performance as a harridan who has her comeuppance and Warwick Hawkins, as Councillor Albert Parker shows genuine outrage as he is accused of stinginess by one and all.
Another difficulty with this play is the need for a strong supporting cast of seven extras who attempt to help, coerce, blackmail, and bribe. All this cast manage to maintain the reality of being in the Helliwell’s family home and apart from the one ‘la-di-dah’ southerner this was in no small part through successfully sustaining strong Yorkshire accents.
Again, similarly to An Inspector Calls, the play is all set in one room with people frequently coming and going. It is essential that the space is used in a way that allows the cast to move around freely without being cramped, but provides opportunities to create a variety of stage pictures, and this is something that Paul Lunnon’s set achieves. Costuming generally suited the period, although I was quite concerned about the fabric and style of Fred Dyson’s trousers when he appears alongside the drunken photographer, both of which seemed far too modern. I also felt that generally the cast were still feeling their way with the lines, and this sometimes made for a slightly stilted performance. I would have liked to see them picking up cues a little more quickly, overlapping their dialogue in a conversational manner to add pace. It would also perhaps have added a little more authenticity to the situation in which they found themselves, where each would have been desperate to have their say.
The show opens on December 4th and this was a competent and reasonably slick dress rehearsal. I am sure once the audience is in and the cast are bouncing off their reactions the pace will pick up and this will be an extremely enjoyable way to spend a chilly, winter evening.