FOR SERVICES RENDERED
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 20th September, 2015
Somerset Maugham’s 1932 play didn’t go down well when it was first produced. It was too close to home for post-war Britain, where people preferred to see theatre as an escape from the daily struggles of a broken nation. The play recognises the prevailing trend: some of the characters troupe on in tennis whites, carrying racquets, but though amusing, this is far from one of those silly, lightweight comedies.
The show begins with Sydney, a veteran, blinded during the Great War, in a startling depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Tom Inman gives an astonishing performance and director Rod Natkiel bombards us with everything the Ron Barber Studio has to offer in terms of lighting and sound. It’s quite an opening.
It’s a conventional three-act play set in the family room of the Ardsleys. Rather than a plotline, Maugham gives us several. It’s a bit like watching an omnibus edition of a soap opera you’ve never seen before. Each character has his or her own problem – giving the more than competent company plenty to sink their teeth into.
John Sugden is utterly convincing as patriarch Leonard, clinging to a stiff-upper-lip philosophy despite his family (and by extension, society as a whole) unravelling under his very nose. Jo Thackwray is his Mrs, Charlotte, a bit less stiff in the upper lip department, but confused by the new ‘rules’ of society. “I’m pre-War,” she says, as (SPOILER) she is confronted with news of a terrible illness. These two are strong presences in all their scenes and they are ably supported by younger members of the cast – in particular Liz Plumpton, who is rather good as Eva, losing her marbles in scenes of table-flipping and chess-piece losing. Oli Davis, as troubled former sailor Collie, walks a tightrope between repressed emotion and emotional outburst in perhaps the tensest performance of the lot, while Andrea Stephenson’s stoical but brittle Ethel also makes an impression. Ethel is married, regrettably, to boorish drunkard and struggling farmer Howard (John O’Neill in a turn that is part-comic, part-monstrous), and Eleanor O’Brien makes her mark as the trouser-wearing young woman Lois, embarking on scandalous behaviour. John Whittell brings assurance and authority to his role as Doctor Prentice. Ivor Williams is good value as ageing philanderer and Paul Daniels look-a-like, Wilfred, while Pat Dixon threatens to steal every scene she’s in as his overbearing wife, Gwen.
The cast handles the sometimes outdated dialogue with an easy naturalism, hitting the punchlines and the dramatic punches equally successfully. Period is economically evoked by a few items of furniture and objets, and credit must go to Pat Brown and Vera Dean for their work with wardrobe, giving each character a range of outfits to suit both era and personality.
Of course, the play was not written as a period piece but has become one. Then it was commenting on contemporary issues – matters that are still very much with us today. The lot of ex-servicemen struggling to make a living, notions of assisted suicide, class distinctions, and the terrible waste of every war, and the jingoism that goes along with it. In the most impassioned speech of the piece, Sydney says people were “dupes of the incompetent fools who run the nations”. Bad news, Sydney: they’re still in charge.
It’s an excellent production, an easy watch, its issues accessible and its drama enjoyable, with some striking moments along the way.