As with the work of a number of early 20th century dramatists, the plays of W. Somerset Maugham have fallen out of fashion in recent years, the occasional revival of The Circle or The Letter notwithstanding. Believing that there is “a real snobbery in some of our theatres towards writers such as Maugham,” the industrious Matthew Dunster has set about putting this situation to rights, with a production of Maugham’s 1928 work The Sacred Flame for English Touring Theatre. A controversial piece in its day, Maugham’s play has been pretty much forgotten since a late 1960s revival starring Gladys Cooper. Dunster’s striking, though erratically acted, production makes a good case for the play, even if it can’t quite redeem some of the more problematic assumptions underpinning the piece.
A WWI hero, Maurice Tabret has been severely disabled following an accident. Bed-ridden, he’s attended to by an all-female coterie: his mother, his wife Stella and a very dedicated nurse. But then Maurice dies suddenly. His doctor suggests that heart failure was the cause, but the nurse suspects foul play, pointing the finger of suspicion at the family members and questioning their attitude to the dead man.
From this conventional whodunnit premise, Maugham fashions a drama that touches on a range of surprisingly resonant issues, including one of our very favourite media hot potatoes: euthanasia. At times, one senses the playwright congratulating himself for his own daring, though - truth be told - the play now seems a very strange mixture of the radical and the reactionary.
Of all the text’s slaps in the face to conventional morality, the prioritising of female sexual desire over traditional care-taking duty is certainly challenging. But for all the generousness and sympathy of Maugham’s vision - “Love comes and goes, and none of us can help ourselves,” muses one character, while another proclaims that “We’re none of us all-of-a-piece … not one self but half a dozen” - there’s a rather uncomfortable attitude to disability expressed in the piece, which seems absolutely unable to conceive of an “invalid” enjoying any kind of sexual life at all, and thereby becoming merely an object of “pity” to his partner.
Despite the murky undertones of this, Dunster’s production grips and intrigues. The action, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, unfolds on a sparse white set by Anna Fleischle that strips away “the chintz and chaise longue” approach that the director believes to be part of many people’s barriers to Maugham. And while the production is hardly swamped by effects, the opening is hypnotically strange and beautiful. To the tinkling strains of a plaintive jazz version of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (yes, really) we observe the actors quietly taking their places and stagehands dressing the set.
If anything, the production could have used more of these innovations. Some scenes turn static - the actors are parked around delivering revelations like they’re in an Agatha Christie play - and some of the performances aren’t all that they could have been. The most originally-conceived character by far is Maurice’s mother, Mrs. Tabret - a prototype Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, I’d suggest - whose reactions give the play its biggest surprises. Margot Leicester brings understated grace and some saving wry humour to this role, and provides the production with all of its most memorable and moving moments.
She does this, it must be said, without a great deal of help from the rest of the cast. Beatriz Romilly’s Stella lacks allure and keeps bursting into fake-looking, shoulder-heaving sobs. Sarah Churm starts meekly and then turns shrill as the righteous Nurse Wayland. Al Nedjari clumps about as the doctor who doesn’t want a scandal to sabotage his burgeoning practice, and David Ricardo-Pearce is barely there as Maurice’s brother. As Major Liconda - onetime beau of Mrs. T - Robert Demeger has some effective scenes. But all the male roles feel underwritten by Maugham, with the exception of Maurice who sadly exits the play after Act 1 (though is - brilliantly - kept visible for the remainder of the action in this production). A double shame as Jamie De Courcey is the only cast member who gives a performance that's a match for Leicester’s wonderful turn.
The Sacred Flame is a flawed play, and Dunster’s production doesn’t entirely overcome its imperfections. But there’s more than enough of interest here to make this a very welcome revival that’s well worth the journey into zone 6 - or elsewhere - to see.
26-29 September Northern Stage, Newcastle
2-6 October Oxford Playhouse
9–13 October New Wolsey, Ipswich
16–20 October Liverpool Playhouse
23–27 October Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford
30 October–3 November Theatre Royal Brighton
13–17 November The Nuffield, Southampton
20–24 November Cambridge Arts Theatre
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.