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Enjoyable, but not the play that Maugham intended



Review by David Munro

WRITTEN in 1926, and first performed in New York with Ethel Barrymore, The Constant Wife is another of Maugham’s plays in which he casts a cynical eye over marriage and adultery.

Constance Middleton (Liza Goddard) is the wife of John (Robert East), a Harley Street surgeon, who is having an affair with her best friend, Marie-Louise (Natalie Walter).

Constance is well aware of this, but refuses to allow her mother and friends to tell her.

She is forced to act, however, when Marie-Louise’s husband, Mortimer (Robin Browne), produces John’s cigarette case, which he found under Marie-Louise’s pillow and accuses John and Marie-Louise of adultery.

Constance extricates them from the situation, but she tells John that while she will never divorce him, she will henceforth no longer be financially dependent on him.

The play ends on an ambiguous note in her leaving for a six-week holiday with Bernard Kersal (Steven Pinder), an old admirer whose love for her had, it appears, been platonic until then, but she promises John to return to him after the holiday, when Bernard has to resume to his job in Japan.

At the time Maugham wrote the play, his marriage to Syrie, his wife, was ending.

They divorced in 1927 and Maugham carried a burning hatred of her for the rest of his life.

There are, however, interesting parallels to his matrimonial situation in this play.

Maugham was a doctor, as is John Middleton. Constance wins her freedom by taking on a job as an interior decorator, as did Syrie, who became one of the best-known and most sought-after decorators of the Twenties and Thirties.

There is, however, a strange inversion of the sexes. Constance leaves her husband for a man she had known before her marriage, as did Maugham for a man he had had an affair with before he was forced to marry Syrie.

This play is, perhaps, an example of art imitating life, or vice–versa, and may have perhaps been, in a way, Maugham’s apology to Syrie for the way he treated her.

The wife comes out the best of all the characters in the play, and she is the stang of the trump as far as the plot is concerned.

It is also possible the semi- autobiographical nature of the plot was recognised by London Society at the time the play was produced and may have accounted, in part, for its failure.

Historic antecedents apart, how did this revival shape up? In a word, it is enjoyable, but it is not the play which Maugham intended.

Liza Goddard, who is always a delightful actress to watch, lacks the bite and incisiveness to give Constance the backbone the part demands.

It is an amusing and elegant little performance, but possibly more suited to 'No Sex Please we’re British', than Maugham.

As her sister, Martha, Susan Penhaligon’s performance reminds one irresistibly of Su Pollard’s chalet maid in 'Hi-De– Hi', rather than the daughter of a refined middle-class family.

The part is of a forthright, if stupid woman but not a grotesque, as Miss Penhaligon makes her.

Natalie Walter plays Marie-Louise as vulgar and irritating and it is hard to believe that she was a friend of Constance, nor that John Middleton could ever have conceived a passion for her.

The dialogue indicates that she was sensual and silly, but with breeding which cloaked her disreputability.

She was not the stereotyped 'piece of fluff' beloved of in English farces from the Twenties onwards that Miss Walters played, and whom you could not accept would have ever had access to the social circle in which the Middleton’s were supposed to have moved, despite her marriage to the vulgar financier as her husband is portrayed.

John and Bernard were reduced to foils for Constance, and any credibility they might have extracted from the characters was doomed to fail by the hand on forehead and jumps for joy depictions of emotions they were directed to carry out.

Theirs was a farcical travesty of melodramatic acting and totally unsuited to the verbal wit of the author.

Virginia Stride, however, gives, as Mrs Culver, Constance’s mother, possibly the best performance and is certainly nearer to what Maugham intended than the rest of the cast.

She is a compassionate, if worldly-wise woman who, while despairing of both her daughters behaviour, never gives up hope, nor allows the idiosyncrasies of life to mar her veneer of breeding and good manners.

A performance well within the tradition of comedy that the play demands.

Maugham, like Coward, relies on his lines and situations for his comedy. The latter, though, sometimes far fetched and outré, should never be allowed to degenerate into farce, as Mark Piper allows his cast to play their scenes.

Whether this is Mr Piper’s fault, or arises from Edward Hall’s original production, I am unable to say, but to me it is a severe miscalculation and although it raises laughs, they are cheap laughs and not what the author intended.

Despite the performances and direction, this is still a funny play and although the cast fail to extract the full humour and flavour that Maugham intended, it still is a pleasant evening in the theatre.

Had I seen it played by an amateur cast, which at times I thought I was witnessing, I would have said it was a commendable performance.

As it was, I felt that we, the provinces, were being fobbed off with second-hand goods and that what may have been a stylish and witty West End production was here a piece of hand me down shoddy, fit for the groundlings and to H*** with their masters.

I think the two curtains and polite applause indicated I was not the only one in the theatre with that impression.

I hope that when Mr Edward Hall’s next West End production – Betrayal – is seen in Richmond, I shall be able to greet it with the same enthusiasm as I did in the West End, and he sees fit to give us a better cast and production for Mr Pinter than he, Mr Piper and Mr Kenwright, the producer, have for Mr Maugham, which was, in itself, a betrayal for both the audience and the author.

The Constant Wife, by William Somerset Maugham.
Director, Mark Piper; Designer, Michael Pavelka; Lighting, Ben Ormerod; Sound, Simon Whitehorn.
WITH: Liza Goddard; Susan Penhaligon; Steven Pinder; Robert East; Virginia Stride; Natalie Walter; Robin Browne; Maev Alexander; Richard Bardsley.
Producer, Bill Kenwright.
Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey.
Mon, April 26 - Sat, May 1, 2004.
Eves: Mon – Sat 7.45pm; Mat: Wed & Sat 2.30pm. Box Office: 020 8940 0088.

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