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From left, Kate Hennig, Claire Jullien and Catherine McGregor in When We Are Married, at the Shaw Festival.

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
J.B. Priestley
Directed by
Joseph Ziegler
Thom Marriott, Patrick McManus
The Shaw Festival
The Royal George Theatre
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Runs Until
Sunday, October 26, 2014

J.B. Priestley's 1938 comedy When We Are Married holds an important place in television history, indeed much more important than it does in theatrical history: It was the first play to be shown live, in its entirety, on the BBC.

Today's broadcasts of theatre on TV (such as the recent Sound of Music on NBC) or in cinemas (such as the National Theatre Live series) are considered cutting-edge, but the practice actually dates to that one evening on Nov. 16, 1938.

And When We Are Married, currently being revived at the Shaw Festival, is just as televisually interesting for the influence Priestley's script seems to have had on the sitcoms that would go on to be shot, like the play was, on a single set, by three cameras, in front of a live audience.

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The plot will be familiar if you've ever watched a TV comedy: Three Yorkshire couples who got married on the same day gather to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary together – but a spanner is thrown into the proceedings when they discover that the minister who married them 25 years ago did not have the proper credentials.

The revelation that comes in the first act allows the three pairs – played at the Shaw Festival by Thom Marriott and Claire Jullien, Patrick McManus and Catherine McGregor, and Patrick Galligan and Kate Hennig – to re-evaluate their relationships and speak freely about them in the second, then reconcile, hopefully happier than before, in the third.

The device has, since Priestley's play premiered, become a trope. The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Simpsons – all these famous animated series had an episode where a long-standing marriage was seemingly made void based on a technicality. It happened on I Love Lucy, on Gilligan's Island and on The Dick Van Dyke Show, too. It occasionally still pops up, though usually only coloured with a knowing irony, since the institution of marriage has evolved in Western society to a point where a similar revelation would be treated with a shrug.

There's no irony in director Joseph Ziegler's production of When We Are Married. The only difference between watching it and watching a rerun of a sitcom that recycled the plot is that a) the acts are 40 minutes long instead of 10; and b) a group of modern-day actors get a chance to joust with old parts and old jokes. The chief pleasures of Ziegler's straightforward production is seeing what gags still stand up, which now fail miserably, and how this consummate group of performers can resurrect some of the deadest ones with energetic interpretations.

Among the couples, the men get the best material and really make the most of the opportunity. Marriott shines as a forerunner of the sitcom dad playing a bull-headed alderman with a booming voice who is constantly on the verge of strangling everyone around him, McManus is deliciously dislikeable as a stingy and drearily dull councillor, and Galligan provides a sweet contrast as the kind-hearted, henpecked Mr. Soppitt.

Two Shaw actresses get a chance to shine comedically as the household help – Jennifer Dzialoszynski is the funniest as a 15-year-old maid who speaks her mind, at top speed, while Mary Haney is marvellously over the top as a cranky cook.

The wives aren't characterized nearly as cleverly by Priestley, however, and Ziegler's productions leaves them firmly in the last century.

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As Mrs. Soppitt, Kate Hennig delivers a particularly hoary portrayal of a hen that pecks her husband. The climax of this couple's storyline is reached when Mr. Soppitt, with new-found courage, gives his wife a good slap across the face and she finally falls into line. It's played in Ziegler's production the way it was written, as a triumphant moment for the character and a hilarious one for the audience, even though I believe The Honeymooners went off the air in 1956.

Another disconcerting bit comes when a visiting photographer (an off-key Peter Krantz) tells the young maid, at length, that she should learn to be less lippy if she doesn't want to be chopped up into pieces with an axe by her husband. Here is a society where domestic violence was treated more casually than today, reverently resurrected on stage. Even the raucous opening-night audience didn't like this part – and while much of Priestley's comedy still stands up, I noticed that they didn't at the end.

A final note: This is the third big-cast play in a row in the Shaw Festival season where I did not hear a single actor of colour speak a line. It was five years ago that playwright and actor Andrew Moodie challenged the Shaw Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell to "share the stage" – but the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival still remains a place where you can see a production where the only non-white face on stage is playing a silent, second footman (See: The Charity that Began at Home), and the Asian plays that Maxwell claimed she was getting translated at the time have yet to materialize. Yes, the Festival is doing The Mountaintop, a play about Martin Luther King, in the studio later in the season, but that only makes the segregated feel of the mandate plays more unseemly.

This came to mind at When We Are Married because there's a problematic but fascinating play by Priestley called The Glass Cage, set in Canada, of all places, and featuring three aboriginal characters, meaning it might have a diverse production even without a colour-blind cast. That play has been rediscovered in the United States and Britain in recent years, but from the Shaw Festival: nothing. Earlier in her mandate, Maxwell seemed to have an idea or two about modernizing this museum theatre – but now, with a couple of years left, I fear she is content to toss this ticking time bomb on to other hands.

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