As Dr Johnson observes, “he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a Critic.” The justice of that observation struck me after watching this revival at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, now celebrating its 25th year. How easy was my task, compared to the efforts that have gone into maintaining high-quality productions like this one, on serious themes in a West End where the money-spinning musical is king! The current production features as many as twelve actors, not the sort of numbers one often sees in these days of two- and three-handers. It was gratifying to see the small studio space packed out last night, as the audience squeezed into every available nook.
Gratifying too was the chance to see a play by Somerset Maugham. Before the First World War, and for long after it, he was one of the most successful dramatists on the London stage, but his works are now seldom revived. That is a great shame, for as this production exemplifies, Maugham was a master of plot, dialogue, characterisation and sheer stagecraft. His views on dramaturgy can be read with profit in his unsentimental and unflinching (save for his homosexuality) autobiography, The Summing Up, published in 1938.
For Services Rendered first appeared in 1932, and shows Maugham at his best. His early training as a doctor, and his extensive travels around the world, helped give him a penetrating insight into the human condition, with all its foibles and weaknesses. A large selection of these are on display in this work, set at the time of the Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, when upper-middle-class English families like the one depicted here were on their uppers all right, and officers who had served with distinction in the War now found themselves unable to make a decent living. The family is dysfunctional (when was a functional family ever interesting?), and their descent into unhappiness is mercilessly dissected. Yet the pithy dialogue is full of humour too. Is it a coincidence that the most sympathetic character is a doctor?
This is a riveting piece of theatre. The excellent cast and direction do it full justice. It deserves to have the house full as well every night.