The work of Somerset Maugham conjures up certain images in the mind. Middle class gentility between the wars; P.G.Wodehouse, Jeeves and Wooster; twee with a strong hint of ‘more tea vicar’. Having never previously seen a Maugham play I wondered if my assessment was anywhere near the mark. I was certainly in the right ball park as this solidly performed revival demonstrated. The Jermyn Street Theatre as always maintains quality in the most constricted of stage areas; some audience members were sat on the stage which only adds to the intimacy as the story unfolds.
The Ardsleys are, outwardly at least, a respectable family living in Kent during the immediate post war years. Matriarch Charlotte (Diane Fletcher) hides a secret while husband Leonard (Richard Derrington) is a respected local solicitor. Their only son Sydney (Richard Keightley) returned from the Great War blinded, barely consoled that he served his country. His reluctant carer is unmarried sister Eva (Rachel Pickup). She has designs on ex-navy man Collie Stratton (Jotham Annan); who had a good war but is now struggling to maintain a motor business. Other siblings begin to pick at old wounds as indiscretions come to the fore. The battle lines are soon drawn as long standing tensions begin to boil over.
A curiously short Act I drags more than it should and is slow in setting the scene. Act II is much more satisfying and expansive, fleshing out multi-faceted characters. However, the script could have benefited from a modern adaptation. One presumes the original Maugham script was used and comes across as something of a relic. Period dramas are fine; but 1930s prose written for the stage will inevitably sound corny to modern ears. However, the plotting is excellent with characters sparking off each other to great effect. There is a tremendous amount of depth which is surprising for a play featuring twelve characters; it proves what a talented author Maugham was; however, its Achilles heel is exposed time and again. Characters waving tennis rackets around could easily have come from a Harry Enfield sketch and robs the play of much credibility. This is a great shame as there is a strong narrative lurking beneath the frothy dialogue.
There are some powerful emotions explored within the family dynamic. Britain between the wars was repressed by stoicism and a plain refusal to admit weakness. Painfully polite middle class manners was the ultimate communication breaker, and the play rightly emphasises this point. An excellent cast ensure the play ticks over but the script could use a makeover.
Written by: W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by: Tom Littler
Produced by: Jermyn Street Theatre
Box Office: 020 7287 2875
Booking Link: https://www.eticketing.co.uk/jermynstreettheatre/Events?preFilter=173
Booking Until: 5 October 2019