It’s fitting that in a Chichester Festival Theatre season that ends with three of Chekhov’s early works they also feature a play so indebted to his introspective, often melancholic style. Like Chekhov, W. Somerset Maugham has crafted a play that has a tendency to be fascinating and at times incredibly frustrating but that certainly deserves attention.
The plot centres on the home of a country solicitor and the slow disintegration of his family playing out as we watch. There are some incredibly well thought out performances, not the least from Stella Gonet as the matriarch whose perfect manners and visible love for her family hide the fact she is desperately ill. Her children are all, in some way, broken and she initially throws herself into looking after them before finally admitting defeat, and confessing her relief that her days are numbered.
Her son Sidney, blinded in the Great War thuds about the set, his walking stick bouncing off the furniture as he hides his distress below a thick layer of sarcasm. It’s a fine depiction by Joseph Kloska whose vacant stares are often somewhat unsettling and whose disability allows him to say what other characters won’t.
Elsewhere youngest sister Lois is pursued by an aging lothario while eldest sister Eve shows signs of cracking under the pressure of caring for her family. Justine Mitchell gives Eva a distinct vulnerability and we get the impression she was never allowed to grieve for the love she lost to World War I. Sadly her burgeoning romance with the seemingly disinterested Collie is
incredibly clunky and the long pauses (presumably director Howard Davies intention is to make the situation uncomfortable to watch) come across almost as if neither actor is quite sure where the scene is
There are moments too when the script descends into clichéd “stiff upper lip” territory that borders on pastiche.
Thankfully though, such moments are followed by more dark humour and gloomy contemplation – a tone Maugham seems much more comfortable with. But the lasting impression is of a play that isn’t quite worthy of the fine cast performing it!