First Chichester weekend of the year, and a joint visit with our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The last time we saw them was for a show in Edinburgh, and it poured with rain. This time, in Chichester, it poured with rain again. We’re seeing them next weekend in Stratford. I don’t have much in the way of climactic expectations!
After a really superb lunch in the Minerva Brasserie (why would you go anywhere else pre-theatre in Chichester?) we took our seats in the Minerva Theatre for For Services Rendered. Described as a rarely performed play nowadays, I did get to see it at the National in 1979 – on September 14th, in fact, in seat G14 in the Stalls, priced £5.95. I remember it being a stunning production, featuring such stalwarts of the stage as Jean Anderson, Alison Fiske, Peter Jeffrey, Harold Innocent, Barbara Ferris and Phyllida Law. Of course the original production starred Flora Robson and Ralph Richardson – I bet that had the wow factor. But there’s no doubt that this new production at Chichester is, I’m sure, as fine as any in the past. Superb attention to period detail, a deep, beautiful, atmospheric set, and cut-glass acting as good as you’ll get anywhere.
Written in 1932, this was Somerset Maugham’s last-but-one play, an examination of the fallout of World War One within a well-to-do English family. Fourteen years on, the Ardsleys are still just about surviving, with the oldest son and heir blinded in the war, and therefore unable to carry on the family business; one daughter having lost the man she’d hoped to marry; another having married outside her class (disgraceful) to a tenant farmer; and the third unmarried at 27 with no hope of finding a suitable gentleman in the backwater in which they live. In addition, there is the hard-up ex-officer Collie Stratton, who opened a motor repair business that has fallen on its face, and a married couple with no apparent love for each other, but with the husband eager to seduce the Ardsleys’ youngest daughter. All that, and the doctor brother of the lady of the house has concerns about her health… Maugham weaves these threads together culminating in various degrees of tragedy, although there is one glimmer of happiness for a couple of the characters somewhere there – but on reflection, it’s unlikely to end well.
Whilst this may be a play from several eras ago, and you may feel that the drawing-room, middle class setting is anachronistic in the post- Look Back in Anger age, there is much to admire and appreciate about this play. Staging it today shows how the general emancipation of women has come a long way; back in 1932 it just wasn’t done for women to make their own decisions about – well, anything really. Marrying outside of one’s class is shown to be a foolish venture, inevitably ending in disappointment; that is perhaps the one element in which this play has a dated feel. Apart from that, much that was relevant then is relevant today. Coping with social shame and scandal can still result in suicide. Lives and relationships can still be ruined in the aftermath of war. As a nation, we still don’t look after our war veterans as we should; many of them still rely on drink or drugs as a prop on which some of them just about get by. Recessions and depressions affect our livelihoods and incomes; but there will always be those who have inordinately inappropriate sums of money at their fingertips, to keep for their own pleasure and fun without a thought for the wider community. If For Services Rendered had been written by Noel Coward, we might have expected a wittier touch or maybe a happier ending; but Maugham liked his gloom, and, despite a few ironically humorous scenes, the tone and vision remain bleak throughout – but appropriately so.
Howard Davies’ classy production thrills you from the moment you enter the auditorium and are greeted by William Dudley’s elegant, tasteful set; in fact it was all I could do to deter Lord Liverpool from jumping on stage, lolling on one of the dining chairs, feet up on the table, feigning 1930s ennui with a tennis racquet in one hand and The Times in the other. The whole production oozes dignified restraint, from the rarely played wireless in the corner to the well-worn but once hideously expensive eastern carpets. Only the pantomime-like clap of thunder that heralds in the second act strikes an over the top note; I half-expected Mr Ardsley to burst out of a stylised bottle, bestowing three surprise wishes upon the impoverished Collie.
Stella Gonet’s Mrs Ardsley is a strong matriarch, who knows precisely how to behave decently and will never stoop to depths unbecoming of a lady. Her altercation (such as it is) with youngest daughter Lois is a fine exercise in strict discretion, packing her off to spend months with a miserable aunt before she even has a chance to fiddle with her pearls. It’s a beautiful performance, blending practicality with decorum, and when her character has her own tragedy to contend with, she gives us a classic stiff-upper-lip experience that you can only admire and hope you’d be like that in the same circumstances. As her husband, Simon Chandler is a little nugget of Victorian conservatism, decent but unbending, intelligent but without empathy; a walking, talking, emotional void who follows rules to the nth degree. Much of the ironic humour comes from his total inability to see the wood for the trees.
Anthony Calf is excellent as always as the abysmal Wilfred Cedar, exuding friendship and bonhomie when it suits him, retreating into hostile selfishness when challenged. He very credibly gives the impression of someone falling in love with love, and there’s a huge element of the pathetic about his approaches to young Lois. Matilda Ziegler’s Gwen is a brilliant creation of a woman under pressure to keep her man, mixing sarcasm and ridicule with sheer venom. I also loved her opening scene where every comment she made could be taken as an insult – it was immaculately performed. There’s also a brilliant performance by Justine Mitchell as Eva, who’s sacrificed her own emotions to do the decent thing by blinded brother Sydney, but who just can’t take any more of that wretched chess. Her scene with Joseph Kloska, as the persistently irritated and irritating Sydney, where he’s criticising her on her chess moves, is electric. But it is Ms Mitchell’s semi-coquettish approaches to Nick Fletcher’s Collie, sending as strong a signal as is decently possible to suggest that, like Barkis, she is willing, that constitutes the stand-out performance of this play. She positively hurts with pointless optimism, as she tries to lend him money or suggest they would make a good couple together; but Eva is the character to whom Somerset Maugham most wants to deny happiness, and her increasing mental instability is movingly and convincingly played.
Jo Herbert is excellent as the put-upon but stoic Ethel, Sam Callis also very good as the rough and ready farmer Howard with potentially straying hands. Yolanda Kettle is very convincing as the frustrated, teasing and not entirely demure Lois, and David Annen turns in a very nice performance as the doctor/brother, incapable of persuading his patient to do the right thing, and, when it comes to the crunch, resigned to (as he sees it) failure.
A rewarding, thoughtful, and thoroughly traditional revival which kept everyone on the edge of their seats and really satisfied its audience. We all came out heaping praise on the performers and the production. If you’re not au fait with between-the-wars British drama this is a perfect opportunity to see how stiff those upper lips could be. Highly recommended.