While the acknowledged master of the ‘well-made play’ Terence Rattigan has been having a deserved renaissance in the past few years, his predecessor Somerset Maugham has somewhat fallen into obscurity. On the evidence of Howard Davies’s blistering revival of his 1932 play For Services Rendered, currently running at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, this obscurity is undeserved. While it lacks Rattigan’s indelible brilliance and peerless attention to character, it has a mixture of anger and dramatic force that deserves comparisons to Chekhov, as well as being of a clear piece with Davies’s other productions of great family dramas such as All My Sons.
Set more or less at the date of its composition, the story revolves around a once-prosperous middle-class family in Kent, the Ardsleys. On the surface, the worst thing to have happened to them during the First World War 15 years previously is that their son Sydney (Joseph Kloska) has been blinded, reducing him to the status of a bitter invalid. However, the after-effects of conflict affect virtually everyone who they come into contact with, not least an impoverished naval officer-turned-garage owner Collie (Nick Fletcher) who the self-described ‘old maid’ daughter Eva (Justine Mitchell) is helplessly, hopelessly in love with. Throw in a farmer revelling in his ‘ungentlemanly’ status, an older and lecherous man with designs on the youngest daughter of the family and the mother’s suspected ill health, and you have enough drama to compare to a dozen box sets.
Were this less well acted and staged, it might border on melodrama; indeed, a few lines here and there feel clunky and over-expositional, a reminder that not all 30s audiences were necessarily as sophisticated as they might have believed themselves. Yet the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. William Dudley’s subtly brilliant set contrasts the apparent peace and tranquillity of the Ardsley family with a barbed wire mural behind, reminding us that the horror of the trenches was never too far away. And, by the end of this remarkable evening, the seeds for further conflict are all too clearly sown.
The performances are uniformly excellent, although someone with greater knowledge of blind people might have to tell me whether Kloska’s eye rolling and constant wandering around are true to life or not. Mitchell, as the dejected, finally utterly despondent spinster is probably the pick of the cast, although Anthony Calf is wonderfully suave and oily as the middle-aged married man who wants to run off with Yolanda Kettle’s Lois, and I enjoyed Simon Chandler as the self-deceiving father who, in the closing moments, delivers a speech of such utter delusion that it elicits bitter chuckles from the audience. This is both hugely entertaining and timely, and should lead to a revival of other Maugham plays soon. The Maughamaissance – as nobody apart from me is calling it – cannot come quickly enough on this evidence.
For Services Rendered at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until 5th September 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.