THE 'well-made' play, once disdained as the most stolid and dated of theatrical forms, is enjoying a mini-renaissance at the moment. Stephen Daldry seems to collect awards on an almost weekly basis for his expressionist opening-up of Priestley's An Inspector Calls at the National Theatre, while Terence Rattigan's star is once again on the climb thanks to Karel Reisz's subtle spring-cleaning job on The Deep Blue Sea at the Apollo. (The Rattigan re-evaluation is likely to be furthered by Peter Hall's forthcoming production of Separate Tables.) And now to the Old Vic, fresh from its sell- out season at the Salisbury Playhouse, comes Deborah Paige's powerful revival of For Services Rendered, the bitter 1932 play in which Somerset Maugham demonstrates that what the Great War had actually produced was a land fit for speculators and nervous depressives.
Maugham was amusedly aware that the 'well made' dramatic conventions he used (the to-ing and fro-ing from offstage tennis, for example, or the creakily engineered tete-a-tetes) would lull an audience into a false sense of security. But far from confirming 'respectable' middle-class values, For Services Rendered proceeded to undermine them with a swingeing savagery. Ms Paige does not condescend to the camouflaging cosiness of idiom because she knows it's there to make the emerging bleakness all the more desolate. In essential respects, you realise, watching her barbed production, this play might have been written by David Hare.
Kit Surrey's design signals from the start that there's a world in stark contrast to the setting, a solicitor's comfortable family home in a Kentish backwater. Like an indicting anomaly, white crosses of war graves line the side of the raked conservatory, with a scattering of red poppies adding a further reminder of lessons that had been forgotten. Paige's fine cast ably flesh out the War's long-range effects on this family. Sydney, the blinded hero-son, is only the most obvious casualty as Tim Sabel's characterisation - all goading, grim, tartly oppressive jokes and manipulative self- amusement - makes plain.
There's a sister (Moir Leslie) who lost a fiance in the conflict and is now veering into demented spinsterhood; and another (Harriet Bagnall) who, bedazzled by wartime romance, made a misguided downmarket marriage. To add to the depression, there's the Depression, a parlous time for ex-officers driven helplessly into business by cuts in the forces. When one of these kills himself rather than be sent to prison by his creditors, the elderly solicitor - whose tactical obliviousness to the harsh realities around him is clearly conveyed by Jeffrey Segal - opines that suicide was probably the best way out, a means of not bringing dishonour on the uniform he once wore.
Paige projects well the elegiac Three Sisters-like strain in the play, with excellent Terry Taplin bringing out both meanings of pathetic in his portrayal of the ageing ladies' man who pines for a last romantic fling with the youngest daughter, Lois. On the whole, it's not surprising that the mother of the house (Sylvia Syms) should greet the news of her terminal illness with an odd sense of relief. The drama ends with a studied dissonance: while the smug solicitor declares that 'this old England of ours isn't done yet', the mad daughter embarks on an eerie off-key rendition of the national anthem. A land clearly still unfit for heroes; a play clearly still fit for our theatres.
'For Services Rendered' runs to 5 June at the Old Vic, London SE1 (071-928 7616).
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