Review by David Munro
WRITTEN in 1926, and first performed in New York with Ethel Barrymore,
The Constant Wife is another of Maughams 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-Louises husband,
Mortimer (Robin Browne), produces Johns cigarette case,
which he found under Marie-Louises 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
viceversa, and may have perhaps been, in a way, Maughams
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
Liza Goddard, who is always a delightful actress to watch, lacks
the bite and incisiveness to give Constance the backbone the part
It is an amusing and elegant little performance, but possibly
more suited to 'No Sex Please were British', than Maugham.
As her sister, Martha, Susan Penhaligons performance reminds
one irresistibly of Su Pollards 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 Middletons were supposed to have moved,
despite her marriage to the vulgar financier as her husband is
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, Constances
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
A performance well within the tradition of comedy that the play
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 Pipers fault, or arises from Edward
Halls 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 Halls 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;
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.