Thursday 12 September 2019

Theatre Review: For Services Rendered (Jermyn Street Theatre)

(Photo: Robert Workman)

A tea service set out on the table of a garden terrace decked with climbing roses... With a fine set by Louie Whitemore, Tom Littler's production of W. Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered exudes Autumnal Englishness even before a word is spoken. When Diane Fletcher, elegantly grey-haired and clearly carrying an emotional burden or two, enters the scene and takes a seat, the picture is complete.

As in many Maugham plays, though, biting insights and tough ideas belie the cozy, decorous surface of the drama. Written in 1932, when Maugham was at the peak of his power and popularity as a writer, For Services Rendered follows such works as The Breadwinner (which firmly defended a parent's right to leave their family) and The Sacred Flame (which endorsed euthanasia - a theme that returns here) by offering a perspective on WWI that makes clear the damage that continued to be done to former soldiers (and their loved ones) after their return home.

Maugham accomplishes this through a situation that owes a self-conscious debt to Chekhov. Three sisters, Eva, Lois and Ethel, and a brother, Sydney, are the children of Leonard and Charlotte Ardsley. Sydney has returned from the war blind and cynical, and Ewa, who lost her fiance in the conflict, has - increasingly begrudgingly - become his carer. Ethel is unhappily married to a tenant-farmer and the younger Lois has attracted the attention of a an older, married family friend.

Littler's production plays up the Chekhovian echoes, creating a buzz of overlapping funny/sad activity that gives the play's portrait of generational divides and the wider societal damage wrought by war believable human contours. The characters are drawn with Maugham's customary intelligence, and, if this production isn't ideally cast across the board, several of the actors come through with memorable performances.

(Photo: Robert Workman) 

Sally Cheng, Rachel Pickup, Leah Whitaker and Richard Keightley compel as the contrasting siblings and Jotham Annan underplays effectively as a cash-strapped naval hero struggling to make it as a businessman. Fresh from the success of the Orange Tree's Rattigan revival While the Sun Shines, Michael Lumsden brings ardency and pathos to undercut the absurdity of a character who is not adverse to offering a girl money to elope with him, while Viss Elliott Safavi moves beyond comic caricature to convey the desperation of a wife who realises she's about to be ditched.

And the velvet-voiced Fletcher is exceptional as the matriarch, bringing a lifetime of technique to create a performance of great naturalness, one that's restrained and economical but full of feeling. The astute Charlotte, whose reaction to a terminal diagnosis is not the expected one, suggests a relative of the equally surprising Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame: an older female character whose conventional demeanour masks unorthodox views. The same goes for the play itself. Littler's production occasionally looks a bit cluttered on the small Jermyn Street stage, but it succeeds in capturing both the sensitivity and sharp subversiveness that defines Maugham's writing at its best.

For Services Rendered runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 5 October.

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