THE BARBED SHADOW OF AN OLD WAR
I’m late on the curve with this one – but it runs into September and for me, In n these WW1 anniversary years, fascinatedly collecting plays which reflect – better than any prosier or more historical media – the sense and effects of that long tragedy. Last year’s crop I wrote about here for the Telegraph – an account which may remind some regular theatregoers of how good it’s been . Link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/11314343/Theatre-can-make-the-dead-walk-before-you.html .
It is the 1930’s plays, as well as earlier ones, which make unsparing points about the hard backwash of even a victorious war; and few are more devastating than Somerset Maugham’s portrait of a family – fourteen years after the armistice – apparently back to pre-war life in a tennis-party world, but scarred both literally and socially. The Ardsleys – Simon Chandler as a prim businessman and Stella Gonet as his wife – have four children. Sydney (Joseph Kloska) is a blinded naval offcer with a DSO and nothing to live for. Of his sisters , Eva lost her man int the war and devotes herself to her blind brother, Lois is still young and has little chance – as was the case for many women – of ever finding a husband or lover. Ethel rashly married a handsome officer who, back in civilian life , reverts to being a boorish, alcoholic tenant-farmer (“The king made me a gentleman but I don’t always want to be, I like a laugh”). Visiting them is the afflluent, twice-married boulevardier Wilfred (Anthony Calf, very suave) who has his eye on seducing Lois; and most poignantly, going quietly bankrupt is Nick Fletcher as Collie, for whom twenty heroic and bemedalled years in the Navy were a poor preparation for business life. “I may have to get a job driving a motorbus” he half-jokes: this a man who commanded a destroyer.
Fatheaded stupidities, selfish and desperately selfless behaviour, wilful blindness, heroic stiff-upper lips, suppressed passions and bitterness (chiefly from Sydney, whose blind presence is a constant reminder of reality) create a hum of unease and tension. To modern sensibilities, some problems seem crazy: why can’t the girls get jobs, why shouldn’t a woman help a man out financially, why should Eva sacrifice herself for a brother who is so rude to her, and indeed why can’t he play some part at least in the father’s business rather than stay at home all day being told he is useless? But you buy into it, as the the sense of period is strongly evoked and maintained in Howard Davies’ production (the Minerva’s intimate wraparound shape it really helps, we’re there; and William Dudley’s clever, bitter design has a rural backdrop beyond the window with haycocks and the shadow of old barbed wire).
And in these days of complaints about few good roles for women, note that Maugham has (admittedly in a cast of 11) five absolutely cracking female parts. Justine Mitchell’s Eva is superb- notably in the scene where she begs the over-honourable Collie to accept her help and her love , wrenching herself from convention to heroically humiliating frankness. Gonet’s Charlotte, watchful, maternal,resigned, deals brilliantly with the matriarch’s extraordinary response to a shattering revelation and then a scandalous one; Jo Herbert’s resigned Ethel and Yolanda Kettle’s bright, seductive, scared Lois are perfect; and Matilda Ziegler’s Gwen, aggrieved wife of wolfish Wilfred, gets her storming moment in the second act.
So at last, a shivering snort of laughter meets black irony as the blinkered father says “It’s very nice to be surrounded by one’s family”, impervious to the fact that – this need not be a spoiler – one is blind, one has gone embarrassingly mad, another is about to trigger a major scandal, one is dying, one alcoholic, and another mired in quiet desperation. “We have our health” he fatuously says. It’s a cruel characterization of middle-class obtuseness, even by Maugham’s standards : but Chandler does it beautifully.
box office 01243 781312 to 5 Sept