For Services Rendered
By Somerset Maugham
Jermyn Street Theatre, 16 B Jermyn Street, London SW1 6SJ to 5 October 2019.
Mon – Sat 7.30pm Mat Tues & Sat 3.30pm.
Runs 2hr 15 mins. One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7287 2835.
Review: William Russell 6 September.
To celebrate its 25th birthday Jermyn Street theatre, the unquestionable jewel in the West End’s crown, is staging a revival of Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered, his 1932play about a middle class English family not quite surviving the world after the First World War, Lloyd George’s country l fit for heroes which proved something of an illusion. It is strongly cast and Maugham’s anger at the way men who fought for their country fared comes across powerfully especially in the speech at the end given to the man blinded in battle. It was not a hit in 1932 in spite of a stellar cast including Flora Robson and Ralph Richardson. West End audiences of the day did not like to be reminded of such things.
The play still works, but this production by Tom Littler does it no favours. There is nothing wrong with colour blind casting, but it has to make sense. The actors perform perfectly well but the family and their neighbours simply do not represent the world Maugham was writing about. There are some plays where colour blind casting does not matter but here it does – we are looking at a very specific English family at a specific time and what we see sabotages the whole enterprise. So too does the bizarre decision to set the action in some blue painted heavenly setting with the occasional bit of furniture scattered here and there which means it is taking place in limbo rather than a 1930s world of spinster daughters, tennis on the lawn, lots of drinks consumed, and maids to serve afternoon tea, announce visitors and lay the fire.
But it is what is known as a well made play and such plays usually survive even the most bizarre directorial whims. This one does although because you cannot accept the group on stage as a coherent picture of that society it is a bit of a struggle. The Ardsleys are affluent. Charlotte, the matriarch has something wrong – possibly cancer – and being stoic about it. Her husband Leonard is a pompous solicitor. Their children are Eva, in her very late thirties whose fiancé was killed in the war; Ethel who has married a farmer – marriage is what women’s careers were then – who, while having been an officer in the war, is socially below the family; Sydney, their blind war hero son who is looked after by Eva doing what spinsters had to do then; and 26 year old Lois who is on the verge of being a spinster and desperate to escape. Add their neighbours, Wilfred Cedar, a lecherous middle aged rich business man tired of his foolish second wife, and lusting after Lois; and Collie, a decorated naval officer how owner of a garage business seen by Eva as a possible husband, but headed for financial ruin and just not interested and you have a splendid dramatic mixture.
Diane Fletcher suffers with stoicism as Charlotte; Rachel Pickup goes gloriously mad as the desperate Eve turning into a kind of Miss Havisham and bringing it all to a shocking conclusion; Sally Cheng is a sparkling escapee; and Richard Keightley not only gets the definitive speech to deliver, which he does forcefully, but manages to maintain the illusion he is blind throughout although given the socially correct casting by today’s rules it is a wonder they did not hire a blind actor.
That said Jotham Annan is a very good Collie, the sort of chap who might have taken on a garage but almost certainly did not soil his hands on any of the car engines and is unaware that writing bad cheques is a crime; Burt Caesar is brilliantly brutish as the farmer, a man who had a good war with plenty of women; and Viss Elliott Safavi fizzes as the second wife desperate not to lose her social position by losing her husband.
The play makes a perfect 25th birthday choice, but the production really is another matter. As for Aoife Kennan, landed with the role of the obligatory maid, she brings on trays and pots of tea and announces unwanted guests with aplomb leaving one wondering just what she thought about the lot of them. Stars are always a nightmare, but while I have reservations about the production, the play is one not to miss and the performances are all first rate.
Charlotte Ardsley: Diane Fletcher.
Gertrude: Aoife Kennan.
Sydney Ardsley: Richard Keightley.
Ethel Bartlett: Leah Whitaker.
Gwen Cedar: Viss Elliott Safavi.
Lois Ardsley: Sally Cheng.
Wilfred Cedar: Michael Lumsden.
Eva Ardsley: Rachel Pickup.
Collie Stratton: Jotham Annan.
Loeonard Ardsley: Richard Derrington.
Charlie Prentice: Jim Findley.
Howard Bartlett: Burt Caesar.
Director: Tom Littler.
Set Designer: Louie Whitemore.
Lighting Designer: Ali Hunter.
Fight Director: Philip d’Orleans.
Photographer: Robert Workman.