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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Minerva, Chichester


  Sam Callis, Justine Mitchell and Jo Herbert/ Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

We don’t hear very much from W. Somerset Maugham these days, which is both a pity and a puzzle. He was one of the most popular English dramatists of the first half of the 20th century, and at one point in 1908 no fewer than four of his plays were running simultaneously in the West End. Yet I have a suspicion that this superlative revival of his quietly shattering 1932 drama could spearhead the sort of rediscovery of Maugham’s writing that Terence Rattigan has enjoyed in recent years.

There’s a brief, ghastly suspicion that we’re in for an “anyone for tennis?” drawing room piece, as the action opens up in the genteel house of country solicitor Mr Ardsley (Simon Chandler) and his grown-up family. Such fears are quickly, mercifully allayed. For starters, there’s son Sydney (Joseph Kloska), blinded in WW1 and now dependent on the ministrations of his kindly, weary sister Eva (Justine Mitchell), whose own fiancé was killed in the conflict. Maugham’s bitter, biting point comes into sharp focus: The concept of the glory, patriotism and noble sacrifice of war is long gone, leaving in its wake an economically constricted land of injured men and women without husbands and thus futures in polite society.

The beating heart of the action comes from the three Ardsley daughters, a trio grappling with barely hidden romantic anguish. Eva, the eldest, fears an impending lifetime of spinsterhood and turns her attentions to war-hero-cum-failing-businessman Collie (Nick Fletcher). The scene in which Eva declares herself to him is one of the most moving I’ve watched all year. Ethel (Jo Herbert) has married below herself, and unhappily so, to an uncouth, philandering farmer, whereas Lois (Yolanda Kettle), flintily bright and beautiful, as well as canny enough to know that time is never on a young woman’s side, considers a financially rewarding sexual entanglement with an older, married man. “I am sick of waiting for something to turn up. Time is flying and soon it will be too late,” she says, with the hard-won wisdom of someone three times her age.

Given that the production is directed by Howard Davies, England’s preeminent orchestrator of naturalistic ensembles, the performances are superb. In the smallish role of kindly Dr Prentice, David Annen gives a turn of such pitch-perfect period acting that he could have stepped straight from the set of something starring Celia Johnson. Mitchell, a perennially wonderful actress, exquisitely conveys Eva’s growing despair and her frantic attempt to balance decorum with declaration as far as Collie is concerned. Kettle marks herself out as a definite name to watch with such crisp work. I’d love to see her in some high-quality Noel Coward.

William Dudley’s set creeps up on us in a most rewarding manner. At first it looks like a simple painted backcloth of hay bales, but gradually we notice that there is barbed wire entwined in them. The tentacles of war stretch menacingly down the years – and there’s another one just around the corner.


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