Writer: W Somerset Maugham
Director: Matthew Dunster
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
The Public Reviews Rating:
Sometimes if a play hasn’t been staged in 45 years there’s a reason. Tastes and styles change and, while there is sometimes a discovery of a ‘lost gem’, there’s also sometimes just the curiosity value.
W Somerset Maugham is particularly tricky – his writing evokes a period now long gone that it’s difficult to do anything radical with it. English Touring Theatre though are never ones to take the easy route and here they give his 1929 The Sacred Flame a somewhat Brectian makeover.
As the piece opens, stage managers set the scene; it’s a slow start as chairs, actors and props are put in place and even the house lights stay up. Why such an approach is never really resolved, the set – brutal metal work, angular steps and whitewashed walls seems to defy location or period, even though the language pins the piece in the 1920s. Anna Fleischle’s set and Lee Curran’s heightened reality lighting combine to create a somewhat industrial feel.
The whole setting puts the audience on edge from the outset but it turns out to be style of substance as a paper thin plot is stretched out over two and a half hours.
War hero Maurice has been paralysed in a flying accident and the former action man is now bedridden and reliant on his nurse for every need. His young wife is outwardly devoted but has her own dark secrets. Living with his Mother and younger brother only adds to the strain on the family. When Maurice dies unexpectedly the accusations fly and what was a tense family drama takes an almost Agatha Christie-esque twist.
The problem is that when the twist is finally revealed it turns out not to be much of a twist at all and something of a damp squib. Partly the problem is down to the fact that, while Maugham gets his characters emoting their inner fears, it’s done in such a restrained way that the inner demons are never really released.
Director Matthew Dunster has created an oddly cold and static staging, never really allowing characters to build chemistry, instead they seem to pontificate at each other rather than get to any particular point. At times it seems little more than an animated script reading rather than any in-depth characterisation.
James De Courcey does elicit some sympathy as the bed bound Maurice and Margot Leicester as his doting mother does provide a hint of what could have been with her emotional denouement but, overall, there’s a feeling that the concept of the piece has come at the cost of emotional depth.
Maugham’s poetic words shine through and ETT should be commended for reminding audiences of the power of his writing but sadly this is one flame than needs a little more nurturing to really make it come alight.