Somerset Maugham was never in the first rank of authors, but, when it came to flattering an audience, no one could touch him. Maugham cosied up to that substantial segment of the public, married women who thought they deserved better. Not only did he acknowledge their disappointments; he also sympathised with their need to feign contentment to maintain their financial and social status.
But Maugham – who met charges of cynicism by saying he was merely a realist – gave his fans a lot more than sympathy: at his plays, they could vicariously enjoy the plush lives of the rich and titled and the triumph of heroines who slapped down their husbands without losing their femininity or respectability. With Edward Hall's production, though, they have to do a lot of vicarious acting.
Constance Middleton; her husband, John; and her best friend, Marie-Louise, are not just rolling in money – they're suffocating in it. When Marie-Louise's husband wounds her feelings, he soothes them with a necklace costing £12,000 (in 1926!). The brute has denounced her, in front of the other two, for having an affair with John, but Constance shows him he's wrong. The joke is that he's right, and that Constance has known about John's infidelity for months.
Meanwhile, Bernard, whom Constance nearly married 15 years ago, has returned from abroad, as much in love with her as ever – indeed, he announces, "I love you, I worship you" every five minutes. Instead of leaving her husband, Constance eats her cake and still has the moral advantage, while making John eat something else. She is going to reward her old beau's devotion by allowing him to love her for six weeks. All the banter in the world can't hide the fact that this sex comedy and its heroine are sexless and creepily cold.
The play has been redeemed in the past by a womanly, velvet-voiced actress in the title role, but Jenny Seagrove is as far from that as you can get. She looks haggard – Michael Pavelka's drab costumes don't help – and squawks her coquettish dialogue as if auditioning for the chance to impersonate Virginia Bottomley. Simon Williams is a John Major-ish stalwart as Bern-ard, and Linda Thorson, as Constance's mother, yaps and bellows when she should suavely insinuate. While one admires the eloquence of Stephen Pacey's shoulders (he plays John), one wishes the rest of him could do half as well. Only Sarah Crowe, as the blonde fluffball Marie-Louise, has comic style.
That style, however, has nothing to do with that of her character or the play. If one had told Somerset Maugham that the brittle charm of the Twenties would be represented by actors such as these, even he, I think, would have been amazed that anyone could be so cynical.
To 29 June (0870 890 1101). A version of this review appeared in later editions of Friday's paper
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