Minerva, Chichester Festival Theatre
As if an addendum to all the WW1 remembrances of last year, Chichester Festival Theatre’s shrewd revival of W Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered not only adds a rider to those war years but sounds a remarkably apt note for our own times.
Though Maugham’s country house drama is set in 1932, it has as much a feel of postwar 1950s about it, not just in its fashion but in its characterisation and situation. As then, so now, austerity is everywhere. And to director Howard Davies’ designer, William Dudley’s great credit, the frocks worn by the three daughters of country solicitor, Mr Ardsley have a satisfyingly make-do-and-mend authenticity about them reflecting a rural middle class not exactly falling on hard times but scrubbed many times over.
Ardsley it is who has the last sombre word in For Services Rendered, a patriotic endorsement of all that is English, Voltaire-like in its complacency – `the world has turned a corner’, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – but one which is rendered stupid, ignorant and yes, even cruel by everything that has gone before and also hauntingly scuppered by the warbled singing of `God Save the King’ by his eldest daughter, Eva whose emotional breakdown and flight into fantasy we have just witnessed.
Clever old Maugham. No wonder the play was one of his least successful and enjoyed only a brief run in the West End when it premiered. Like the best of Rattigan and Coward, Maugham wrote a play that appeared to happily fit his bourgeois audience’s patriotic preconceptions only to subvert them with some cynical but hard truths about the after-effects of war and the harshness of civvie street for those who had risked life and limb in the forces but found it difficult if not well nigh impossible to adjust thereafter. What was their sacrifice for? Was it really worth it? and how does a nation repay its debt to those broken in its service?
Such sentiments are as true today, post Iraq and Afghanistan, as it was then, post the Somme and later the war in Europe and the Burma Railway.
The catalyst for Maugham’s reflections is ex-Naval Officer, Collie Stratton, made redundant by the Navy because of post-war austerity measures (another contemporary parallel!) – honourable, decent, but failing horribly to make a go of running the local garage. Around him circulate the Ardsley family – father, mother and three daughters who, with Chekhovian-like muddle and desperation, trail respective unsuitable husbands, hapless suitors and the unfortunate Collie in their wake.
In a very post WW1 plight, marriageable men are in short supply. For Eva Ardsley (the brilliant Justine Mitchell), self-sacrificing, growing old caring for her brother, Sydney, blinded in the war, Collie offers the one glimmer of hope to achieve her own happiness, life and family.
In contrast is daughter number three. Lois – bright, sharp and hard-headed, courted by wealthy retiree, Wilfred (Anthony Calf at his charmingly wayward best) with neurotic wife, Gwenda in tow, and almost succumbing to the animal carnality of daughter number two, Ethel’s bovine farmer husband, Howard – sees a more pragmatic escape route.
The shifts and turns by which Maugham brings all these prevailing currents into sharp and combustible focus is fascinating. Only in the last quarter of an hour, does he slightly over-egg the mixture, toppling it into melodrama.
But on the way, there are hugely gratifying moments to be savoured. Howard Davies, a master of naturalistic intensity whose string of Russian ensemble productions at the National Theatre have been their high water marks, succeeds here, too, in creating an atmosphere of tragic-comic and absolutely lived-in family dynamics. Led by Stella Gonet (Mrs Ardsley), a stellar cast all contribute handsomely.
Thoughtful, thought-provoking and true, for those of us who at one time declared Maugham, Coward and Rattigan `old hat’, the re-assessments and revivals of recent years have proven, are proving revelatory. And sobering.
Well worth the trip.
For Services Rendered is at the Minerva Theatre Chichester to Sept 5, 2015
First published in Londongrip August 2015