Yet for some reason this piece simply did not press our buttons. Perhaps Janie and I had seen this subject matter covered with more power elsewhere. Perhaps the characters came across as rather stiff and cold to us, rather than the bottled-up emotion that (I suspect) was supposed to be portrayed.
It is a short piece and is (as more or less always at the Orange Tree) thoughtfully designed and produced in the round. So don’t necessarily take our word for it.
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.
You get the idea. I think we might have escaped early and cut our losses at half time on this one. Janie might remember for sure but I have no recollection at all about the ending and do recall not caring.
Spanish food at Don Fernando rounded off the evening nicely nonetheless.
A mixed bag evening, mostly good stuff in the mix, with three short plays all with a “yoof” theme, at the Cottesloe.
We weren’t going to miss this one. Roy Williams we liked a lot when we first came across him at the Royal Court a few years before. Ditto Dennis Kelly, whose work we’d very much enjoyed at the Hampstead. Lin Coghlan was new to us.
We weren’t overly familiar with Paul Miller’s name as director then, although we had seen his work before and now (writing in 2016) know his work well at the Orange Tree.
Apparently this production emerged from the National Theatre’s Connections programme, getting young people involved in performing, although this production was picked up by and delivered by professionals, albeit some of them very young professionals.
My recollection of this one is extremely limited. We saw this on the Saturday evening between my father’s death and the funeral. The programme helps my memory, as does Janie’s recall (also dredged with the help of the programme) and the reviews.
Victoria Benedictsson was a Swedish writer who had a difficult time as a modern woman in the early days of women’s liberation. She killed herself relatively young, but not before writing this loosely autobiographical play in the late 1880s. The play is now seen as a precursor to Scandinavian works such as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House.
I note from the programme that Nancy Carroll played the lead; I subsequently discovered that she is an Alleyn’s alum; good for her. She is an excellent actress. I also spotted in the programme that Paul Miller (now taking the Orange Tree Richmond from strength to strength) directed this production. In the round too; good training for the Orange Tree.