People find the strangest things funny. The elderly couple beside me seemed convinced that the bell-pull in Tim Shortall's set design was a deliberately outré, parodic touch rather than a perfectly ordinary fixture in a grand country house in 1921. William Somerset Maugham was often seen as cynical, but I doubt whether this extended to his view of domestic fitments. However, times have changed since the days when one of his characters could plausibly have referred to irony as "a rhetorical form not much favoured in... England."
The circle referred to is less the social grouping on this country-house weekend than the cycle of events portrayed. Thirty years after Clive Champion-Cheney's wife ran off with his best friend, she returns to the house now occupied (as is Cheney's parliamentary seat) by his son... exactly at the moment when the junior Mrs Cheney is herself contemplating "bolting". Maugham shows us, quite as fully as the elder characters explain to the younger, the changes which the decades can bring both to individual characters and to relationships, especially when what bind people together are moral and pragmatic rather than legal ties; yet he also reminds us that, at the last, this is a world in which reason and obligation seldom do prevail.
Jonathan Newth's Clive Champion-Cheney is the consummate unflappable politico; as was said of Metternich, if someone kicked him in the backside, not a muscle in his face would move until he had decided how to react. For all that we are told that Trevor Baxter's rumbling, irascible Lord Porteous would have become Prime Minister had the scandal not forced him out of the country, it is plain that Cheney would have been the power behind the cabinet table. As his estranged wife Lady Kitty, Lois Baxter captures a woman desperate to perpetuate the image of herself as animated and vivacious, but in truth declined into affectation and implausible couture. Director Mark Rosenblatt also gets crisp, period performances out of almost all his younger actors, with Dale Rapley in particular deploying the kind of nasal bark which marks Arnold Champion-Cheney out as one of the more tedious products of his class. The sole exception is Tom Mullion as the supposedly dashing Anglo-Malay planter Edward Luton; in looks, voice and gesture alike, Mullion is so out of time that one wonders what Elizabeth could possibly see in him except as a temporary bit of rough quite at odds with Maugham's script.
Rosenblatt's production is solid and efficient, but to judge by the almost uniformly grey-haired audience on the night I attended, it will take more than that to entice younger folk to reacquaint themselves with Somerset Maugham.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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