Writer: Anthony Curtis
Director: Chris Garner
Reviewer: Holly Spanner
The Public Reviews Rating:
Written in the first person narrative, biographer Anthony Curtis translates William Somerset Maugham’s (or Willie, as he is known to his friends) story into a stylish, witty and sensitive one man play. Known today for his considerable contribution to literature, with almost 100 books and over 30 plays, Maugham’s writing became his solitude, an escape, without which he felt empty.
Following the untimely death of his mother, and his father just two years later, Maugham’s life was far from straightforward. He was moved to King’s School in Canterbury, after which he developed a stammer that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Graduating from Heidelberg University, he went against his instinct as a writer to qualify as a surgeon from St. Thomas Hospital, and later became part of the Red Cross ambulance unit in France. Here, he met lover Gerald Haxton, who was a charmer, alcoholic gambler and cad. Maugham’s instinct to write eventually became too strong, and the writing took over as he pursued this drastic change in career. His double life as a secret service agent inspired in him a collection of short stories which would later influence Ian Fleming to write the Bond series.
Maugham is played by actor, writer and producer Anthony Smee, who has worked across film, television, radio and theatre for the past 40 years. Clocking up an impressive resume, Smee has taken on roles in The English Patient, Return of the Jedi, Hollyoaks, Doctors, Midsomer Murders, Heartbeat and A Touch of Frost to name just a few. He takes on Maugham’s stutter brilliantly, and pulls off a perfect annoyance with the harsh ringing of his telephone, in an intimate, personal portrayal of the writer. Often coming across as an independent, distant and perhaps difficult figure, Maugham’s struggles from a lonely, traumatic childhood are apparent, as we follow the course of his life to the paranoia felt as a 90 year old man.
Scattered with suitcases, books, manuscripts and curiosities that hint at an exotic life of travel, the stage set is elegantly simple. Every prop has a meaning and a story of its own. A number of empty picture frames lie to one side, which in the hands of Smee become filled with glorious paintings. There is the sense that the audience have been invited into Maugham’s home, that we are his guests, friends even.
Michael Odam’s lighting is superb. In an instant, the audience are transported from the Western Front, to a room lit by candlelight, to the warming glow of a familiar study. It accentuates the details of the set, right down to the cobwebs on the picture frame. The play is very well directed as Smee makes use of every inch of the stage, whilst his ever changing jackets denote different key periods in his life as time skips forward and back. The final scene is beautiful and sensitively portrayed, as Maugham returns to that which makes him truly happy.
With smooth one-liners, this is a reflective play with a good clear script that progresses well. Recommended especially to anyone who enjoys reading biographies, it brings a new appreciation to the drive behind one of the most famous authors of the 20th Century.