The Breadwinner – May 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Somerset Maugham

Directed by Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 7th May 2013

Another little gem from the Orange Tree, this time with a husband and father, the breadwinner of the title, turning the tables on his spoilt wife and pampered children. Set in 1930, the play deals with the social and economic after-effects of the First World War in a light-hearted way, with the characters making some valid points as well as showing us some less pleasant aspects of human behaviour.

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Before The Party – April 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Rodney Ackland

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th April 2013

Based on a Somerset Maugham short story, this is a brilliant play in an excellent production. The performances from the cast were all flawless, and even though our seats were far enough to one side for me to miss the odd line here or there, it wasn’t enough to diminish my enjoyment. I would happily see more of this writer’s work if we get the chance.

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The Sacred Flame – October 2012

8/10

By W Somerset Maugham

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 26th October 2012

It was an interesting choice by ETT to put on this neglected Maugham play. The style of the production was equally interesting, and although I didn’t care for some aspects of the staging, the play itself and the performances quickly had me engaged and involved.

The set was spartan but effective. Blank walls demarcated the space: there was a bedroom centrally placed at the back, a wide space in front of it, a door to the garden back left with some gravel in front of it, and stairs leading up to a balcony on the right. There was a door up there to the upper rooms, and some shelves to the left of the bedroom for the drinks tray, books, etc. The furniture was equally Spartan – apart from the hospital bed for the invalid there were a few chairs and several large fans which were in action at various times; I found the noise a bit distracting, and as there was no reason for them other than the occasional references to hot summer weather, I could have done without them altogether. The costumes were also in period, the late 1920s.

The story and style were both unusual. The story concerned Maurice Tabret, a WWI pilot who was severely injured either during or after the war, and who was completely bedridden, paralysed from the waist down. His young wife, who had married him only a few months before his injury, was doing her best to stay both cheerful and faithful, but it was soon obvious that she was actually in love with Maurice’s brother Colin, who was back on leave from his plantation. Mrs Tabret, Maurice and Colin’s mother, also lived with Maurice and Stella, his wife, and they were visited regularly by Dr Harvester and the recently arrived Major Liconda. Nurse Wayland looked after Maurice daily and lived in, and it was her insistence, after Maurice’s death, that he had been poisoned which created the whole drama. The first half of the play set up the situation and the characters, while the second half dealt with the fallout from the nurse’s assertion about the missing pills.

In dealing with the question of murder or assisted suicide, Maugham is much more explicit about female sexuality than usual, even nowadays. Stella’s difficult situation and her needs, the passionate affection felt by the nurse and the mother’s love for her son are all explored in a somewhat clinical way, yet I found I was engaged with the characters and emotionally involved. There was some lovely humour too; the Major had a very entertaining expression on his face when Mrs Tabret was exposing his feelings for her from many years before, and her dismissal of any current prospects for him were equally amusing.

The play’s language is formal and heightened, like a Greek tragedy, and this was emphasised by the stark nature of the set. This created a claustrophobic atmosphere, entirely suitable for the nature of the accusations which were being flung around. Although this wasn’t a murder mystery as such, we were still keen to know the truth about Maurice’s death, and the final revelation was very satisfactory on that score. The nurse’s decision was also believable, given the circumstances and her personality, and when it finished I was very glad that we’d caught this on tour – it’s a good play, though I can see why it might not be revived very often.

The performances were all very good. Robert Demeger is an established favourite with us, and his Major Liconda was very enjoyable. Margot Leicester was an imposing presence as Mrs Tabret, and she was matched by Sarah Churm as Nurse Wayland. Al Nedjari gave a strong performance as the doctor, and although I found Beatriz Romilly a little lightweight as Stella, overall the rest of the cast were fine.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Circle – August 2008

6/10

By Somerset Maugham

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th August 2008

I don’t think I’ve seen this particular Maugham play before, but as with most of his plays, the plot isn’t what you would call complex, so I felt very much at home with the story soon after the start. This isn’t a criticism, as I don’t go to a Maugham play expecting convoluted plots with lots of twists; the gentle teasing out of the human condition with some good laughs along the way is enough for me.

The opening was a little confusing though, as it wasn’t immediately clear who was married to whom. Arnold, the main husband in the story, is actually married to Elizabeth, but his attitude towards her in the opening scene is more that of a father than a husband, and she does look young enough to be his daughter.

We get the relationships sorted out at the same time as we learn about the situation. Arnold’s father Clive has arrived back unexpectedly from France, and will be staying in his lodge in the grounds (we’re talking posh folk here) at the same time as his runaway ex-wife Kitty and the lover she ran off with thirty years ago pay their first visit to the family home since they scarpered. Oops, how embarrassing. It turns out that Elizabeth has some romantic notions about the woman who would have been her mother-in-law, and wants to meet her. As events unfold, it seems likely that part of the attraction is Elizabeth’s own discontent with her marriage, and the possibility she sees of repeating the process with her own new love.

Arnold isn’t at all keen to see his mother again. She left when he was five and he hasn’t seen her since, but he grudgingly accepts his wife’s choice to invite her down. He comes across as a stuffed shirt with very little affection for his wife, but with a penchant for interior design. His father Clive is a smooth operator, who’s adjusted to life without his spouse by deciding to enjoy himself to the full. The scandal of his wife running off with another titled politician, who was also a good friend, meant Clive had to resign his government post, so he’s spent his time, and some of his considerable wealth, having fun. He’s fairly relaxed about everything, and doesn’t mind seeing Kitty again.

The other house guests are Anna, presumably an old family friend, and Teddy, a relatively poor chap who has been working on plantations out in Malaysia and is keen to get back there. He gives us the outsider’s view of English society, and is also the man that Elizabeth adores. Fortunately, he loves her as well, so we’re all set for a jolly romp and the two older lovebirds haven’t even turned up yet!

Actually, I’ve got ahead of myself. Once Elizabeth has explained the situation to Clive, and he’s agreed to stay out of the way (he doesn’t), the final couple arrive. Played by Susan Hampshire (Kitty) and Phillip Voss (Hughie), these are definitely not romantic lovebirds, nestling and cooing at each other. More like an arthritic porcupine with a hangover and a batty old hen with a lipstick fetish (I mean this in a nice way.) These two bicker and argue, Hughie insults everyone who comes in range, and Kitty does her best to get on with everyone, even asking her ex if he’d like to take her back. He declines the offer. Over the three acts, Elizabeth gets to see what can happen to an illicit couple who are shunned by polite company, but still she’s determined to make a new life for herself with a new man.

Seeing what’s up, Clive devises a plan to help Arnold keep his woman. Arnold’s already blown it once, by reacting badly when Elizabeth first confronts him with her choice, but his father’s taught him that the way to win her back is to give her the opportunity for noble self-sacrifice. So Arnold apologises to Elizabeth for his earlier behaviour, and withdraws any objections to her plans, insisting on giving her a generous allowance which she can use if she wants. His only stipulation is that he will not divorce her; but as I recall he gives her the means to divorce him. I remember thinking at the time that she needed to think of the effect her actions would have on him, and now she does. Her heart is wrung with pity, and with additional input from Kitty explaining what a tough time she would have, she decides to do the noble thing and stay with her husband.

Summoning Teddy, who was waiting for her in the summerhouse (Arnold had banished him from the house, but he was staying at a local hotel), she tells him of her decision, and he thinks she’s barking mad. However, through his own straightforwardness, he comes up with the ideal argument to change her mind yet again. He spells out for her that he’s not offering her happiness, or an easy life, or a comfortable one. There will be rows, and loneliness, and boredom, people will snub them, and there will be all sorts of other unpleasantness. But he still wants her to come with him and share his life regardless. What woman could resist? Kitty and Hughie are still there to lend moral support, which they keep undermining through their excitement at seeing two young lovebirds getting together, and Teddy and Elizabeth are soon driving off in Hughie’s car, which Teddy had thoughtfully taken out of the garage, just in case. And to much applause from the audience, as well.

After they’ve gone, Clive turns up feeling well satisfied that he’s sorted out Arnold’s little spot of bother with the missus. The other two keep their knowledge to themselves, leaving him to boast of his cleverness as the sounds of the car engine fade into the distance. And that’s how it ends.

It was a very enjoyable evening, with very entertaining performances from all the cast. Nearly a 7/10 rating, but the play itself doesn’t have quite the scope to get us there. The set was impressive, with a polished black tiled floor, ornate and formal furniture, and a false perspective view at the back showing us a classical style garden shed at the bottom of the garden.

There was a post-show, of course. Jonathan Church was there, along with David Yelland (Clive), Bertie Carver (an excellent lead in Parade, and here playing Teddy), Charity Wakefield (Elizabeth), and later Susan Hampshire (Kitty). Susan Hampshire had appeared in a production of this same play back in the 1970s, also at Chichester, so naturally when she arrived the first question for her was whether the audience response had changed at all in that time. Apparently not. The question of Arnold’s potential homosexuality came up – he doesn’t have sex with his wife, and likes interior design – and the possible connection to Maugham, himself a homosexual. They had decided not to try and bring that sort of idea into the production, as it’s not specified in the text, and they didn’t want to impose it on the play. I brought up the confusion about who was married to whom at the start, and this led to a lot of information on the work that was done to establish the problems in the relationship between Elizabeth and Arnold, and to tie Teddy’s personality in with that. They’d worked very hard to get just the right approach for each of the characters, and I personally think it worked very well. Someone mentioned how similar many of Clive’s lines were to Oscar Wilde’s style, and David Yelland agreed – there had already been a reference to sub-Wildean dialogue in some reviews.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Letter – January 2007

5/10

By: Somerset Maugham

Directed by: Alan Strachan

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 16th January 2007

This was a play adapted by the author from his own story. Set in Malaya, it’s an account of the trial of a woman for murder, following her shooting of a man who, she claims, tried to rape her. But is it that clear cut? Well, the title’s a bit of a giveaway, as you know there’s going to be a letter involved somewhere along the line, which will have a crucial bearing on guilt or innocence. And the plot doesn’t have many more twists than a willow wand, but the performances were good enough (although I couldn’t make out Jenny Seagrove too well in the early stages) and the story was watchable enough to make it an enjoyable evening. At least Maugham gets some good humour into the writing, and the characterisations have more detail than average, although we’re so used to his style now that there are few surprises. The set was rampant colonial, with bamboo screens being moved hither, thither and yon during scene changes, and the theatre was so stuffy I found myself nodding off a bit during the first half (that, and a very late night yesterday). Still, a decent play and very watchable, especially for the Chinese lawyer milking the letter situation for all it’s worth.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me