I think we booked this because we had booked so little at the Orange Tree of late and because Janie said she’d never seen a Somerset Maugham play. I had to admit that I hadn’t seen one either, although I had read some years ago (and frankly had found them wanting compared with his excellent short stories).
The scenario of this play, Sheppey, Maugham’s last, is straightforward enough. Sheppey is a gentleman’s hairdresser who wins a small fortune in a lottery. The play is set when written, c1933, when the great depression was biting hard for many. Sheppey’s life doesn’t overlap much with the have-nots, but those he does encounter affect him. Sheppey has always thought himself a lucky man despite his relatively modest life; so should his charity begin at home or should he try to spread the benefits of his lucky ticket?
The play is unduly long, with two intervals, in the 1930s tradition of three lengthy acts. It is hard to cut such plays to one interval numbers, but this play really does labour its way through 2 hours and 50 minutes (including intervals). If Paul Miller needs to persevere with the Orange Tree tradition of early 20th century plays, perhaps he should drop the tradition of “hanging on the playwright’s every word”.
Janie and I lost patience with the piece after two acts, deciding to bail out and take our fabada and solomillos dinner at Don Fernando’s at a more civilised hour.
This is a shame, as Paul Miller deploys his excellent directorial skills on a very talented cast to bring as much life as possible out of this play. He also deftly uses Geff Francis as Sheppey’s boss and Dickie Beau as the prostitute Sheppey tries to help, without ceremony but equally without any indication in the text that the boss might be black and/or that the prostitute might be a man in drag.
Still, this is not a great play, in my view (and in Janie’s). There are reasons why Somerset Maugham’s plays don’t get revived much. They were popular pieces in their day, but tend to seem incredibly dated in style now.
In Sheppey, the characters are a bit one-dimensional and it is pretty easy to see where the story is going. Major plot shifts are foreshadowed so overtly, Somerset Maugham might as well have alerted those shifts with neon signs or tannoy announcements. So when Janie asked me at the restaurant to look up and tell her what happens in the end, there were no surprises for me in the Wikipedia synopsis – above and again – SPOILER ALERT IF YOU – click here.
Of course, the character of Sheppey made me think of my grandfather, who was a gentleman’s hairdresser at the time the play was set and written. I wonder whether Grandpa Lew ever saw the play. My grandmother (who coincidentally, like Sheppey’s wife, had been in service before they married) was dying or recently deceased around that time, so perhaps not.
But the play was set in Jermyn Street and performed at the Wyndhams, both within spitting distance of the Piccadilly Hotel where Grandpa Lew worked, so who knows? If he took my eleven-year-old mum with him, I very much doubt if her self-confessed childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would have kept her in her seat for the full three acts.
We love the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs. We love the upstairs too, of course, but we really have seen some cracking stuff downstairs.
This piece doesn’t really make the cut as “cracking stuff”. I enjoyed it more than Janie did; she found swathes of it irritating.
There’s not a great deal of plot. Young couple, compulsive arguers about nothing, fall out proper when the shrewish intellectual snob of a wife extracts a confession from the strangely timid yet BSD husband that he has been having an affair with some trollop through work.
Then wheel in the best friend of each spouse plus both of her parents and watch every plausible pairing (and some implausible ones) argue. Some scenes were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny; others were a little “smug sitcom” for our taste. What little plot there is progresses quite slowly and predictably.
It was good to see Michael Simkins (aka Fatty Batter – one of the funniest cricket books I have ever read) on the stage. Last time I saw him in person was at a county cricket match at Lord’s 10 years or so ago; he was with Michael Billington and we three chatted very pleasantly for a brief while.
Plenty of good acting on show, as is pretty much always the case down there at Hampstead. Indeed, in some ways it was the high quality of the acting that irritated Janie. The characters were all unlikable and the actors did a terrific job of projecting that unlike-ability. It is difficult for a play to work if you really don’t care much for any of the characters.
Still, we enjoyed our evening and in some ways the slight disappointment was based on the very high expectations we have now when visiting the Hampstead Theatre – what a huge leap forward from a few years ago when the whole place was in the creative doldrums. Edward Hall has done and is doing a cracking job there. We look forward to seeing the new Neil LaBute upstairs there in a few weeks’ time. I think we saw Mr LaBute himself crossing the Finchley Road while we were on the way to the theatre; quite possible as that upstairs show is still in preview. There’s another fellow we haven’t seen in person for a decade or so.
Before we set off, I looked up the details on the Royal Court website and called them out to Janie. “It won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2013,” I said…
…”hold on a minute, I thought The Rolling Stone was promoted as having that same prize, the same year. What’s going on?”
Turns out, this wonderful (relatively recent) Bruntwood Prize is run biennially and is awarded to four winners each time. So they had both won in 2013.
Yen is in some ways even more troubling than The Rolling Stone. It feels more “on our own doorstep” (not that proximity should make the issues and human suffering any more alarming) and had extraordinary intensity and sway of emotions.
Janie found this play/production so troubling she said she didn’t sleep so well that night. Very unusual; she is pretty robust and we’ve seen a lot of troubling plays in our time. So this is not for “people of a nervous disposition”. But if you like your drama strong, raw and top notch, try somehow to get hold of a ticket for this one if you can.
A powerful evening at the theatre, this play. It is about the forced migration of thousands of British children to Australia in the quarter-of-a-century or so after the second world war.
Janie came away from the play feeling very angry about the Australian Government, although in truth the Church and the UK Government have just as much to answer and apologise for; which, to some extent, all these parties have done in recent years.
It is quite a short evening at the theatre, which was just as well for us, as Janie and I wanted to go on to Lisa Opie’s party afterwards and get there before most people had left, which we achieved. The party did a jolly good job of cheering us up again after this sobering but gripping evening at the theatre.
An interesting short play, this one, lots of tiny vignettes not really connected other than a general theme around bucket lists.
The title actually is “buckets” with a small “b”. Not sure if that is significant or just modern “mess with capitalisation” stuff.
There’s real “what was that all about” weirdness about this play – I’m pretty sure Janie said that as we left – but still we enjoyed some of the scenes and performances. We had plenty to talk about afterwards.
It reminded me, actually, of the sort of experimental stuff Sam Walters used to do above the pub back in the “original Orange Tree” days.