A slice of life
Michael Billington reports on two fine stage revivals complemented by an exciting new work
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