Watermill - For Services Rendered
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Watermill - For Services Rendered

7th March to 14th April 2007.

From Newbury Theatre.

In last week's Sunday Times, AA Gill reviewed the Old Vic's production of The Entertainer and he was rather sniffy about plays written before John Osborne's Look Back in Anger; in these plays, people "come and go through french windows and talk with pickled plums in [their] mouth". In W Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered, written some 20 years before Osborne's, the cast do talk plummily and it's set in a country house with a tennis court, but this is no comfortable affirmation of the Empire, it's a distinctly uncomfortable tilt at the hypocrisy and pointlessness of war.

Set in the inter-war slump, it deals with the problems of decorated war heroes who came back to find that England was not Lloyd George's "land fit for heroes to live in". Collie Stratton, DSO, had commanded a ship in the navy and was now struggling to make ends meet running a garage. His request for a loan is spurned by caddish philanderer Wilfred Cedar, who has his eye on Lois, one of the three daughters of the household. Just about everybody has problems, and there's no happy ending to resolve them.

What struck me about Edward Hall's Watermill production was how absorbing it was; it's quite a short play, but every minute is gripping. And the quality of the cast. Yes, they're all good actors, as you would expect, but they seemed just right for the parts they were in. Tom Beard's Collie was understated and diffident until his suppressed anger could be contained no longer. For me, this was an outstanding performance. Newcomer Olivia Llewellyn's excellent portrayal of Lois showed an initial ennui hiding her desperation to get away from her provincial roots where she saw no future. Attracted and repelled by Wilfred, she sees in him her opportunity to escape. There were dignified performances from the older generation, John Nettleton, Polly Adams and Christopher Good, clinging on to the old world that no longer existed. Lucy Fleming was cringingly recognisable as the airhead Gwen Cedar, tortured by her husband's infidelity, and Abigail McKern as Evie, Issy van Randwyck and Simon Slater as the Bartletts and Richard Clothier as Sydney were four more misfits in this dysfunctional community.

This thought-provoking play was badly received in the 30s, when the audience weren't ready for its message. This message is still fresh today, and 90 years after "the war to end all wars" we've still got a lot to learn.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Sunday Times.

Three stars
A welcome revival of Somerset Maugham’s 1932 play about the effect of the first world war on a bourgeois Kent family. It’s programmatic stuff, and the desires of Maugham’s characters run on dourly Darwinian tramlines of sex and money. Yet his craftsmanlike storytelling keeps you hooked, and Edward Hall’s cast tackle a mediocre period piece with gusto. John Nettleton is excellent as Leonard Ardsley, an icy-hearted drawing-room Polonius. Olivia Llewellyn as his daughter, Lois, turns out to be just as cold beneath her girlish exterior. The acting can be mannered, and the voices too Cowardian, but maybe it’s impossible to give a 21st-century rendering of lines such as, “Are you awfully in love with me?” “Awfully.” Its end is a perfectly judged moment of jaw-dropping black comedy.

CHRISTOPHER HART

From the Guardian.

Four stars
On its 1932 premiere Somerset Maugham's play must have seemed as if a small bomb had been detonated in the West End. Audiences expecting a witty comedy from the country's most popular playwright were reduced to silence by Maugham's anti-war polemic that charts the corrosive legacy of the first world war on a middle-class family. In fact it is fuelled by such bitter passion that it still has the power to shock.

When Sydney, the only son of the Ardsley clan, left blinded by the war, declares, "I know that we were the dupes of the incompetent fools who rule nations," I had to resist the urge to cheer. Contemporary resonances are not far away in a drama that brings the war back and picks over the bones of a future that ended with the armistice.

The play, meanwhile, is an old crock. People really do play tennis and say things such as "you filthy brute" and "rotter." But, at its best, Edward Hall's production has a Chekhovian delicacy beautifully realised in Francis O'Connor's design in which a bare branch hangs over the stage with its large tarnished mirror. This is Three Sisters transposed to the English countryside, with old maid Eva going mad with the knowledge she will never marry; stoic Ethel making the best of a bad marriage contracted in the passion of wartime; and younger sister Lois taking a hard-headed look at her future.

Some of the performances lack subtlety, but there is quiet power in Richard Clothier's cynical, knowing Sydney and moving work from Issy van Randwyck as Ethel, a woman who resolutely refuses to acknowledge her own unhappiness, and Tom Beard as Collie, the decorated wartime naval commander who discovers there is no place for him in a land fit for heroes.

LYN GARDNER

From the Oxford Times.

Does stage director Edward Hall recall the impact made by Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered in Michael Rudman's 1979 revival at the National Theatre? He would only have been 11 at the time, though I suppose his dad - the NT's then boss, Sir Peter - would very likely have taken him along to the show.

The production created renewed interest in a writer whose work - even one-time stalwarts such as The Circle, The Constant Wife and Home and Beauty - had been unjustly neglected for too long. Unfortunately for Maugham's reputation, this was not to last, and we have not been offered much opportunity to assess his stagecraft in the years since. Welcome indeed, then, is Mr Hall's Watermill revival of For Services Rendered (written in 1932) which, while not revealing a classic, certainly presents us with a fine, well-made play that definitely fulfils its purpose as an anti-war polemic.

"Is it tea-time?" - the first line spoken in the piece, to the background sounds of a fiercely contested tennis match, suggests that Maugham is out to subvert a genre. Its speaker is materfamilias Charlotte Ardsley (Polly Adams), whose four children, along with their partners and friends, are to be our concern over the next two hours.

What looks to be a gentle domestic comedy in the making turns out to be anything but - though there are a number of notable comic moments. None is funnier - if more tragic - than the delivery of complacent platitudes about the importance of family life, and patriotic love of his country, made by his fireside at the play's close by Charlotte's pompous solicitor husband Leonard (John Nettleton). If he'd fight for his country again, you think, then heaven help all who join him.

The speech reminded this reviewer of the long-ago Christmas message cosily spouted beneath the festive tree by Crossroads' Meg Mortimer at the end of a year that had seen the celebrated Midlands motel shaken by murder, rape and a terrorist kidnapping. Like her, this blinkered buffoon has, it would seem, registered nothing of the mayhem that has gone before. Nor has he paused to consider how he had it in his power to prevent some of it.

In this context, it has to be admitted that there is a deal of what we now call 'soapiness' in the fates - so many and various and so oddly focused on this one family - that have befallen the characters. A fatal illness, a suicide, a descent into madness, alcoholism - all are here, together with so many sexual passions stirred. Fortunately, Mr Hall has assembled a cast to die for, whose members manage to make the sometimes unlikely scenario ring true and occasionally produce scenes of shiver-making excitement. A definite 'find' is the lovely Olivia Llewellyn, as the youngest of the three Ardsley daughters who fires the lust of a visiting fat-cat businessman (David Yelland) to the jealous fury of his very silly wife (Lucy Fleming).

Her older sisters prove less lucky in life and love. Chained to the task of endlessly entertaining their brother Sydney (Richard Clothier), who was blinded in the war, poor Eva (Abigail McKern) tries to free herself by proposing marriage to a failing businessman and former naval commander (Tom Beard) who simply isn't interested. Ethel (Issy van Randwyck), meanwhile, has to endure the incipient infidelities of her hoary-handed husband (Simon Slater), a man with a permanent chip on his shoulder over class and a well-filled glass of whisky in his hand.

CHRIS GRAY

From The Times.

Four stars
Somerset Maugham’s terrific play was first performed in 1932, in the depths of the Depression and a few months before Hitler took control of Germany. You might think that audiences would have been keen to discover what a perceptive, highly successful playwright had to say about the state of the nation and what might lie ahead. But that is not what they wanted to know. One newspaper called it “a play of malevolent propaganda” and the run was short.

The critic of The Times understood what Maugham was doing and in calling the play “an enthralling theatrical entertainment” he was spot-on. The relationships in the Ardsley family may take a while to sort out, but from the moment that Sydney, the son of the house, blinded in the trenches, walks with a careful pretence of assurance into view, the doings of this afflicted family grab our attention and seize our feelings. In his penultimate play Maugham created a portrait of the English middle class shattered by the Great War and, yes, an enthralling theatrical entertainment.

Edward Hall’s production is exceptionally well cast. Few actors can present the smug complacency of a professional man as convincingly as John Nettleton, who, as the solicitor head of the family, wishes to make known that the war has brought him suffering too, as he has been frustrated in his hopes of passing the business on to his son. “God give me patience,” mutters Sydney (Richard Clothier: excellent).

Patience is the supposed virtue that the long-suffering daughters of the family are expected to practise, and what Maugham boldly points out is the hypocrisy and misery this entailed. Eva (Abigail McKern) has been encouraged to devote herself to her sightless brother, and everyone (though not the brother) is astonished when her desperation bursts through the façade of dutiful obedience. Issy van Ranwyck’s Ethel insists that all is well in her impulsive wartime marriage but silently weeps when alone.

The youngest sister (Olivia Llewellyn) will have none of this and leaves with a married man for whom she doesn’t care “a row of pins” but who has money. In a characteristically clear-eyed twist Maugham makes her mother (Polly Adams) accept the good sense of this decision. Exactly this sort of twist led critics to call him a cynic but it is an honesty that allows us to trust his criticism of a ruling class that persuaded young men to fight and failed to care what happened to them. Alas, what changes?

JEREMY KINGSTON

From the Newbury Weekly News.

War wounds

For Services Rendered, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, April 14

It takes a director of the calibre of Edward Hall - best known at the Watermill for shaking up Shakespeare with his Propeller boys - to attract a quality cast for Somerset Maugham's rarely-produced scathing anti-war play For Services Rendered, and wring out the bitter wit, irony and contemporary resonance from what otherwise might have lapsed into a dated period piece.

First performed at The Globe in 1932, after 30 years of successes, Maugham's audiences were not prepared for the play's anti-war focus and its blast against governments who convince young men to sacrifice their lives for the nation. It closed after 78 performances. It has long since ceased to shock.

The last houseparty of the season, tennis and tea on the terrace introduce us to the Ardsley family and friends, a pretty picture of the comfortable middle classes at play, it seems. But each character has been damaged by the First World War and its aftermath and, as passions unfold and the rain falls, we are drawn into the despair of bad marriages, infidelity, sex, suicide, death and disillusionment in the promised 'land fit for heroes'.

Frances O'Connor's set evokes simply the mood of the piece, as The Watermill is place for words and the message is the focus. The naive language of the day with its 'bad forms' and 'bunks' now verges on ham, but for the most part, the experienced cast carry it off convincingly.

The pompous patriarch Leonard Ardsley is of another time and another country, oblivious to what is happening within his family. His 'this England' speech is the final irony.

The destructive force of the First World War created a new order, old attitudes were questioned and found wanting. His England no longer existed.

TRISH LEE

From The Independent.

Three stars
Creaking at the joints, Somerset Maugham's anti-war drama still, like an old concertina, plays a good tune. It is 1932 in a small town in Kent, and everyone in the Ardsley family is miserable, except for Dad, who is oblivious. The only son, Sydney, has lost his sight in the war and, like his sister Eva, whose fiancé was killed in it, leads a life of tea and tatting.

Their two sisters have met the dearth of suitable young men with different types of gallantry: Ethel, who has married beneath her, smiles through her husband's drunkenness (though, when she is alone, her face collapses into a silent scream); Lois, a useless beauty, cuts off her feelings and throws herself into sport. Mother, who has also made a career of not noticing, is starting to feel the cold wind through the chinks in her armour. Nor is life outside the Ardsley walls any fun: Collie, who commanded a battleship with distinction and is now incompetently running a garage, is facing ruin.

Into this financially and emotionally pinched world stride the Cedars - Wilfred, whose wealth buys freedom from convention, and his wife, Gwen, whose chatter strikes nerves the Ardsleys did not realise were exposed. Smothered hopes reawaken, and resentments bubble.

Praised by the critics but rejected by the audiences of its time as unpleasant, For Services Rendered has been given several successful revivals, of which Edward Hall's careful production, with an excellent cast and sensitive period atmosphere, is the latest, the tiny, walled-in stage of the Watermill emphasising the restrictions of the Ardsleys' lives. While the once-shocking play now raises smiles for its quaintness, it can still make one wince by reminding us that life belongs to those bold enough to seize it and hard enough to trample on others.

When Ethel (a painfully realistic Issy van Randwyck) says of her spouse, "I don't suppose he drinks any more than men of his class," one sees how her much admired saintliness is really snobbishness and passivity. As the lovely Lois, Olivia Llewellyn more than fills the bill; her quiet charm and steely grace also suggest she is someone to watch.

RHODA KOENIG

There is a review at Rogues & Vagabonds ("particularly suited to the rustic wonder of this rural gem of a venue ... a lost world full of bitter humour and sexual tension. A worthy production for the Watermill which will delight all who accept the validity of Maugham's comments without necessarily agreeing with the naivety of their intent" - Kevin Quarmby)