"That man doesn't know how to plump up a cushion," remarked my companion. It's a useful emblem for Neil Bartlett's production of Robin Maugham's The Servant at the Lyric Hammersmith. Bartlett takes a piece of flattened upholstery – Maugham's 1958 stage version of his 1948 novella; he shakes it gently to make it bigger and more welcoming, by transposing the action to the 1960s as per Harold Pinter's screenplay for the classic Losey film version, and by interpolating material from Maugham's various other versions of the story; but the end result, like that cushion, is somehow not entirely the right shape.
What disconcerted me most was not the story itself, of manipulative manservant Barrett playing on the weaknesses of his master Tony to engineer his moral degeneration, but the fact that Bartlett's production got quite so many laughs. Perhaps this was partly a case of a press-night audience setting out to be supportively knowing, but it also seemed to me that there are too many moments at which Jack Davenport's complacent Tony, Michael Feast's crisply Mephistophelean Barrett and Emma Amo's haughty girlfriend Sally tip over into low but perceptible camp. If Bartlett has set out to reclaim and revivify Maugham's tale for the stage, I am not sure how this is achieved by reminding us quite so much of the period-piece quaintness of much of its content. True, he brings out the gay element in Maugham's story by making the final-scene whore Mabel into a rent-boy (without changing a single word of text), but elsewhere the homoerotic charge between Tony and Barrett sublimates into a standard power struggle with a few added moments of discreet, queeny acerbity.
Perhaps, too, we now consider ourselves so classless that in part we relish the downfall of a near-toff such as Tony – back from six years' slog in British East Africa and complaining about money worries, but never showing any practical signs of a limit to his private income. We simply side with the Iago of Barrett as he ensnares Tony in a web of whisky and young bodies of either sex. Davenport's performance, moreover, is a creation of these days rather than those: he seems to lack the precision of vocal or physical manner to place Tony in his particular social stratum and time. Amos's Sally is a performance of precise and admirable technique but little underlying emotional plausibility; even Feast's wonderfully calculating Barrett is sometimes calculated more for the delight of the audience than the benefit of the character. Bartlett's production is in many ways beautiful to behold, and we should give thanks for the director's return to work after a long period of serious illness; but in order to work on its own terms, The Servant must also chill, and here, like Tony's shambolic drinks cabinet at the beginning of the second act, it can offer no ice.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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