The Sacred Flame, Rose Theatre, Kingston


English Touring Theatre played an admirable role some years ago in the rehabilitation of Terence Rattigan. They are unlikely to fare as well, I fear, with this attempt to make a case for the neglected merits of the once enormously successful Somerset Maugham.

The Sacred Flame, first produced in 1929, focuses on a tough and topical subject – mercy-killing – and you could argue that it's an artful mix of the populist and the progressive in its use of a whodunnit-style format to air (in a sometimes startlingly pragmatic manner) questions about love and its different modes, the power and naturalness of female sexuality, and the right to die. In the event, though, the creaky thriller-ish conventions, putting a premium on suspense, constrict and simplify any properly searching ethical debate. 

Six years before the play opens, the young war-hero Maurice Tabret (excellent Jamie De Courcey) was the victim of a plane-crash that left him bed-bound and permanently hors de combat from the waist down. To protect his beautiful and apparently loyal wife Stella (Beatriz Romilly) from the mess of his condition, he has assumed a determinedly chipper and bantering manner. But the facade cracks one night and his despair at being a burden to her and to himself floods out. The next morning he is found dead. His fanatically adoring nurse (Sarah Churm) suspects foul play and demands an inquest.  

In a programme note, director Matthew Dunster makes the extraordinary claim that the play is more shocking than Ibsen. It feels to me more like a weak forerunner of J B Priestley. Margot Leicester is captivatingly humane and wry as Maurice's mother but, to this ear, the character's arguments for tolerance, advanced for their time, sometimes strike a faintly chilling utilitarian note.

There are awkward grey areas that go ignored in what is ultimately far too tidy-minded a piece. The finely judged production exerts a grip nonetheless. In a bid to waft away the smell of mothballs and to remove the stigma of chintz, the characters, with their 1920s clothes and lingo, disport themselves in a starkly modernist abode that boasts see-through glass walls and steel-and-plastic chairs. And there's the odd anachronistic touch that might sound potty but proves to be genuinely apt and eloquent, such as underscoring Maurice's plight at the start with the strains of a slow, sad cover version of Whitney Houston's “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

To 22 Sept; 08444 821 556 – then touring