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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndham’s Theatre

By Patrick Marmion

  Andrew Charleson and Jenny Seagrove

Social antiquarians and historical anthropologists awake! Somerset Maugham's eighty-year-old drama has been lovingly revived and is nothing if not a fascinating recreation of the crumbling mores and manners of the fading British Empire in the 1920s. Set on a Malaysian plantation, it is the story of a society lady (Jenny Seagrove) who guns down a fellow ex-pat on her verandah. She was acting in self defence after the scoundrel attempted to rape her. Or so she tells her adoring husband and circumspect lawyer (Anthony Andrews).

Maugham's 1927 drama goes on to elaborate a sharp moral dilemma as the case goes to trial in Singapore. Here the expectation of a full acquittal for Seagrove's character is clouded by the discovery of a letter sent by her to her victim on the day that she emptied an entire pistol into his gut. But apart from constructing a tight ethical fix, Alan Strachan's production of Maugham's play is a wholly absorbing recreation of a lost world. A world where people used to say things like ‘I don't care a row of pins what you think' or ‘let's go to the club: I badly need a whisky and soda'.

As the accused society lady, Seagrove is a breathy, saintly, put-upon waif. Vulnerable yet steadfast, her character presents a wooden front to the world and Seagrove herself is every bit as wooden as the part demands, fashioning her performance from locally sourced mahogany you might say. More interesting however is the long lost Brideshead Revisited star, Anthony Andrews. As the ethically compromised lawyer, he is frightfully British and stiff upper lip, but he is also charismatically ponderous. Moving ruminatively about the stage, he places his each word as carefully as his next step.

Just as fascinating is the English characters' unreflective snobbery which would today be damned as racism. Although Maugham apparently colludes in this by presenting the Malaysians as sweaty, shiftless, grubby degenerates, he also turns the tables with the character of Ong Chi Seng, the lawyer's Anglophile apprentice. Ong seems to have swallowed a dictionary as well as a guide to correct social etiquette, giving himself cultural indigestion in the process. Yet his apparent constipation turns out to be a sneering parody of the Imperial British complacency which is the settlers' hubris in what is a fascinating piece of social archaeology.


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