A slice of life

Michael Billing­ton re­ports on two fine stage re­vivals com­ple­mented by an ex­cit­ing new work

Country Life Every Week - - Performing Arts -

Paul Miller, di­rec­tor of the Or­ange Tree Theatre in rich­mond, Sur­rey, made a very good point at a re­cent press con­fer­ence. He ob­served that the Na­tional Theatre, the RSC, the almeida and the Don­mar have largely re­treated from the re­vival of plays that have dropped off the radar. in their de­fec­tion lies his op­por­tu­nity.

You see the ben­e­fits of this in the cur­rent stim­u­lat­ing Or­ange Tree pro­duc­tion of Sheppey, Som­er­set Maugham’s last play, writ­ten in 1933, and, ex­cept for a BBC tele­vi­sion ver­sion with Bob Hoskins, hardly seen since. it may not be a lost master­piece, but it crack­les with in­ter­est­ing ideas.

The premise is sim­ple. Sheppey, a be­nign Jermyn Street bar­ber, sud­denly wins £8,500 in the ir­ish Sweep­stake. The big ques­tion is what he will do with the money. Set up his own es­tab­lish­ment? re­tire to his beloved isle of Sheppey, from which he adopts his name? Give his daugh­ter, Flor­rie, and her fi­ancé, ernie, a start in life?

in the end, he does none of these things. Stim­u­lated by a visit to a po­lice court and a blame­less en­counter with a pros­ti­tute, he de­cides to do­nate his wind­fall, in a spirit of Chris­tian char­ity, to help­ing those most in need. The re­sults are pre­dictably tur­bu­lent.

Maugham was clearly fas­ci­nated by the idea of de­fi­ant fa­thers: in The Bread­win­ner, seen at the Or­ange Tree in 2013, he showed a stock­bro­ker flee­ing his fam­ily and his fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions. The big dif­fer­ence in Sheppey is that the hero is mo­ti­vated by the spirit of the New Tes­ta­ment, which pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity for some lethal so­cial satire.

One has to re­mem­ber that, in 1933, there were nearly three mil­lion un­em­ployed, yet Sheppey’s fu­ture son-in-law, who be­lieves in the sur­vival of the fittest, rails against ‘in­dis­crim­i­nate char­ity’. even more telling is that the doc­tor called in to as­sess Sheppey’s men­tal state an­nounces: ‘a sane man isn’t go­ing to give his money to the poor—a sane man takes money from the poor.’

Hav­ing set up the sit­u­a­tion beau­ti­fully, Maugham re­solves it with an over-ex­tended, hal­lu­ci­na­tory se­quence, but the play of­fers some pointed barbs at the ex­pense of a so­ci­ety that preaches Chris­tian­ity with­out prac­tis­ing it. The piece is also given a won­der­fully spir­ited re­vival by Mr Miller.

John ramm is per­fectly cast in the ti­tle role in that, like ralph richard­son, the orig­i­nal Sheppey, he has the rare ca­pac­ity to con­vey goodness: at the same time, Mr ramm sug­gests the pro­fes­sional wil­i­ness of a bar­ber who per­suades bald­ing clients to buy hair- re­storer. Katie Moore dou­bles neatly as a pert man­i­curist and Sheppey’s self­ish daugh­ter, Josh Dy­lan ex­udes smug pom­pos­ity as her fi­ancé and a cross-dress­ing Dickie Beau adds a layer of sex­ual mys­tery to a mod­ern Mary Mag­da­lene.

How­ever, the Or­ange Tree is not alone in re­viv­ing ne­glected plays. The ad­mirable Fin­bor­ough Theatre in earl’s Court, SW10, ploughs the same fur­row and is cur­rently giv­ing rod­ney ack­land’s Af­ter Oc­to­ber its first lon­don out­ing since 1936. it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing, but much more self-centred work than Maugham’s. it deals with the tri­als of a young play­wright, closely mod­elled on ack­land him­self, who naïvely hopes that the anti-war piece he has writ­ten will be a big West end suc­cess and res­cue his Hamp­stead fam­ily and friends from a life of gen­teel poverty.

ack­land, as you would ex­pect, cap­tures ac­cu­rately the hopes and dreams of a writer ha­rassed by all and sundry. adam Buchanan as the drama­tist has just the right air of dis­ap­pointed ex­pec­ta­tion. in Os­car Toe­man’s busy pro­duc­tion, the sur­round­ing char­ac­ters come vividly to life: most es­pe­cially Pa­trick Os­borne as a scroung­ing poet, Bev­er­ley Klein as the queen-bee of the Bux­ton ama­teurs and al­le­gra Mar­land

Adam Buchanan as the young writer in Af­ter Oc­to­ber

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