The Sacred Flame, Rose Theatre, Kingston
Wednesday 19 September 2012
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
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
- 2 McKamey Manor: This 'extreme' haunted house is the stuff of nightmares
- 3 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 4 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 5 David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
Pottermore: JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story featuring 'greying' 33-year-old wizard
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt stars in visceral and brutally ugly drama that reminds us war is hell
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Attacks on 'Ukip Calypso' show how skewed people’s priorities are
Poppy Appeal 2014: This is why I won't be wearing a red poppy this year