LAST year’s award-scooping production of Hay Fever, by Noel Coward, proved that Southend Shakespeare Company can do a dab job with playwrights not named William. If they ever think of changing their name, how about the Southend Light Comedy Society?

They have done it again with When We Are Married. Written by the all-time professional Yorkshireman J B Priestley, this comedy of mindsets and manners, first staged in 1938 but set in the Edwardian era, stands comparison with the best of Noel Coward and even Oscar Wilde.

is witty and funny (two quite different things), it is full of memorably flawed characters (only they do not recognise that they are flawed), and the dexterity with which the carefully crafted plot delivers  its succession of comic complication is like watching an industrial loom from one of Priestley’s beloved woollen towns at work.

Given such stoutly built theatrical material, it can be hard to go wrong, but SSC do more than not go wrong, they turn the play into a thing of crackle, pop, sparkle and grace. Malcolm Toll’s production runs so fast and smooth that you sometimes wish you could freeze-frame it for a moment, just to savour the best moments.

Three sets of smug, wealthy couples, all old friends, all married on the same day, meet to celebrate their silver anniversary. Then a bombshell drops – owing to a technicality in the wedding proceedings, they were never legally married. The revelation strips away all the complacency that has glued together their relationships across 25 years. The resultant furore is further enflamed by the arrival of a lurid floozy (gorgeously played by Madeline Ayres, dressed from head to foot in sinful scarlet) who can tell the ladies exactly what their husbands get up to in Blackpool.

The play is mostly just straight fun, but it does relish puncturing all the traditional English vices of pomposity, self-importance and humbug, and there is even an early hint of women’s lib. All this emerges particularly in a famous and delectable scene between the self-satisfied alderman, Albert Parker (Ross Norman-Clarke) and his gentle, long suffering wife (Joanne Seymour), in which, stroke by stroke, she steadily dismantles his ego. The noise of punctured hot air is almost explosive.

Ian Downie and Jacquee Storozynski-Toll, and John Newell and Sally Lightfoot, as the other couples, also to sterling work. But the evening, and possibly the Southend theatre year, belong to James Carter as the newspaper photographer Henry Ormonroyd, a rumpled drunkard and saloon-bar loudmouth who both adds to the chaos, and then ultimately solves it in his own leery way. What a character.  What a performance. And what a winner of a production.

When We Are Married is at the Palace Theatre (Dixon Studio), Westcliff, until Saturday Nov 28.