By: Antony Curtis
Directed by: Ninon Jerome
Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford
Date: Friday 15th April 2011
I’m getting very fond of one-man (or woman) shows at the Mill Studio. We’ve seen some lovely performances here, and although historical accuracy can’t be guaranteed, I’ve at least gained additional information and insight into the lives and times of some very interesting people.
Tonight it was the turn of W Somerset Maugham. Of course, I knew the name, and I’ve seen several of his plays (The Letter, The Circle), but I haven’t read any of his novels, and I knew very little about the man himself and his life. The writer, Anthony Curtis, actually met/knew Maugham, having fallen in love with his work at an early age, and since he has been closely involved in documenting Maugham’s life and work, I suspect this piece could be described as accuracy tempered with great affection. I certainly enjoyed it, and that was partly down to the writing, and partly due to an excellent performance by Anthony Smee (you don’t have to be called Anthony to work on this production ….).
The set had an ironwork bench to the left, with matching table and chair in the centre, and a desk with a seat and a comfy chair to the right. The desk had books scattered in it, plus a doctor’s bag and microscope – these became clear when Maugham was describing this part of his life – and there were assorted jackets placed here and there, as well as several hung on the coat stand behind the central table. To the right of that hung the famous Sutherland portrait of Maugham, and we learned that this was the first portrait Sutherland attempted; after that it became a trend.
The story was told in a mixture of time frames. As we entered, Maugham was sitting at the table, drinking tea and occasionally dealing the cards for the game of patience he was playing. At other times he would look around, not completely ignoring us, but not engaging with us either, and his expression would register a prissy fastidiousness from time to time. It was no surprise when spoke directly to us, as visitors to his villa in the south of France. He was a charming host, entertaining us with the story of his life, from his birth in the maternity unit of the British embassy in Paris in 1874, through the death of his mother followed two years later by his father, then the unpleasant spell with his religious aunt and uncle, and so on. The phone rang from time to time, and, apologetically, he answered it. From his side of the calls we gleaned two pieces of information; one, that he had a companion called Gerald whose gambling and absence were a great trouble to Maugham, and that WWII had just broken out.
As we moved through the different time zones of his life, Maugham changed jackets to reflect the styles of the time and his own personal choices. This helped a great deal, as the ongoing ‘current’ story shifted from the start of the war through his leaving France and returning to Britain, then his time in the US, followed by much foreign travel and his final, temperamental old age with the post-Gerald companion, Alan. The older story was also woven into this; his time at Heidelberg university, his abrupt decision to study medicine – that got laughs – his impulsive White Knight marriage, his stint as a medical orderly at the start of WWI, followed by a secret mission to Russia, which ultimately failed, but appears to have made him popular with those in power. And, of course, there was also the writing success, fame and friends to squeeze into this packed biography.
Not having seen much of Maugham before, I couldn’t tell how accurate Anthony Smee’s portrayal was, but it seemed both detailed and sympathetic to me. He caught the stammer, often no more than a hesitation, perfectly, and as Maugham commented on this himself, that was fine. He certainly didn’t hold back with the temper tantrums at the end, showing us an old age filled with insecurity, which isn’t unusual, sadly. Still, the overall impression was of a man it would be pleasant to spend time with, whose talents led to a rich, full life and a large body of interesting work. A very enjoyable performance.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me