Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 5 October 2019
It’s always intimate, the Jermyn. We’re in an autumn garden, apples on the ground and fading roses on the wall; birdsong, and a tea table set defiantly Edwardian-style by a maid in a cap. But everything has changed. By the end of two fraught, frustrated hours spread over days, the roses will be dead and a chill fallen on both teapot and human hearts. Somerset Maughan’s 1930s play surfaced last at Chichester, in the heart of the WW1 anniversary years, and reminded me how much theatre taught me about that war and, not least, its aftermath. If 2019 middle-Britain thinks it is in a social and political crisis, it does well to glance back at those grim inter-war years.
Here we have the Ardsley family, smug prosperous Leonard and his wife Charlotte, and their three children; Sydney is war-blinded and bemedalled, dryly unreconciled to Braille and tatting and more clear sighted about the mess of it all than any of them. Evie is bereaved of her own man but yearns towards Callie, who once drove a destroyer but now is a failing garagiste. Lois longs to find a lover but may be doomed to being one of that generation of “surplus women”, unless she succumbs to a loveless profiteering alliance with the concupiscent married Wilfred. And Ethel, married to what was once a dashing officer whom “The king made a gentleman” finds him reverted to bering a boorish tenant farmer, and not necessarily faithful.
Period and design are perfect (costume designer Emily Stuart has somehow sourced some retro long tennis skirts, fairisles, and truly depressing greenish tweeds for Richard Derrington’s Leonard). In most cases the period manner – stiffly upper-lipped – is convincingly held, though Sally Cheng’s brittle smile could do with a rest occasionally. Derrington gives lethally smug precision to Leonard’s self-satisfied platitudes – goodness. Maugham is savage – and Diane Fletcher, in her final resignation to the whole horrible mess, is particularly fine.
Rachel Pickup’s Eva, sweetly devoted and right on the edge of madness, handles the shock and rage of her final scenes well, and I admired Richard Keightley’s Sydney a lot: for his stillness and, in one horribly revealing moment, for the wince when the appalling wittering neighbour Gwen swoops on the blind man to kiss him (as I said, Maugham doesn’t hold back. This may be a play full of good female parts, and an honest reflection on the particular grimness of their post-war lot. But face it, the old devil doesn’t like us much really. )
All in all, it’s worth its revivals, and a fascinating reminder of how the aftermath of WW1 was harder to bear in many ways than the aftermath of WW2 when at least there was clarity about the wickedness of the enemy. But it’s a bleak number. A few more days to run: worth catching.
www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 5 oct