For Services Rendered
Stella Gonet as Mrs Ardsley (the mother)
Simon Chandler as Mr Ardsley (the father, a lawyer)
David Annen as Dr Prentice (Mrs Ardsley’s brother)
Joseph Kloska as Sydney Ardsley, MC (blind son)
Jo Herbert as Ethel Bartlett (daughter of the Ardsleys)
Justine Mitchell as Eva Ardsley (spinster daughter)
Yolanda Kettle as Lois Ardsley (youngest daughter)
Sam Callis as Howard Bartlett (Ethel’s husband, a tenant farmer)
Nick Fletcher as Collie Stratton (naval war hero, now a garage owner)
Anthony Calf as Wilfrid Cedar (rich neighbour and a Lothario)
Matilda Zeigler as Gwen Cedar (Wilfrid’s jealous wife)
Original 1932 play text
For Services Rendered dates from 1932. Maugham wrote around two dozen plays, ten already by 1914, but the process of distillation means that only a few are still well-known. This is the second to last play he wrote. In terms of theatricality, Maugham generally lagged behind Coward, Rattigan or Priestley, and I suspect relinquished the field after Sheppey the same year as this. In spite of a 1932 cast including Ralph Richardson, Flora Robson and Cecil Hardwicke, the play wasn’t well-received at the time, and ran for only 78 performances. It had been expected to run much longer. It portrayed the aftermath of The Great War fourteen years after the event. It is unusual to visit one of the dustier corners of Somerset Maugham’s three volume Complete Plays though there have been significant modern productions of this play, and I believe its place in his works will grow.
This Chichester production contrasts with its muted 1932 reception … it has garnered a swathe of four and five star reviews, marred by a two star review from Sarah Crompton, but The Sunday Times reviewers thrive on sailing against the tide, whether it’s film, TV or restaurants.
The Minerva Theatre is hardly Maugham’s natural proscenium arch habitat, though they have managed to get the requisite French windows in. The subversive thing about For Services Rendered is that Maugham clothed it in all the “Anyone for tennis?” clichés of the drawing room genre. They really do come on and off with tennis racquets more than once. It lulled the 1932 audience with cosy familiarity, and then it went flat out for the most uncomfortable issues. I had neither seen it nor read it, and it is a completely brilliant play, deserving of a far higher profile in 20th Century theatre history.
The depth of the Minerva set: Wilfred (Anthony Calf), Howard (Sam Callis), Lois (Yolanda Kettle)
This production sits on its excellent set. The back wall consists of curved windows with window seats. Beyond we see farmland with haystacks shut off by barbed wire. Surrounding that again is a backdrop of English rolling countryside. When it was produced in 1993, they put white graveyard crosses outside the windows. Hammering the WW1 symbolism a tad too much perhaps. Here, barbed wire does the same job, but you do get barbed wire in the country, so while the WWI reference is clear, it’s not quite so bleedin’ obvious.
The intrinsic Maugham issue for a director, is that Maugham likes to have six or seven people on stage, watching a long dialogue between just two of them. It requires first rate detailed reactive background acting (a given here). The set and direction solved the problems of an array of non-speaking actors listening to the central interchange. Because the Minerva Theatre is three-quarters in the round, they could have the drawing room set within what would have been the proscenium arch in a conventional theatre, but the table where significant discussions takes place is way out in front on the surrounded forestage area. It resolved the Maugham blocking problems … blocking throughout was exemplary and the depth made it feel 3D.
It’s 1932, fourteen years after The Great War. We’re in The Ardsley’s house in rural Kent. Everyone is damaged by it.
Take the men.
Eva (Justine Mitchell) looks after her blind brother Sydney (Joseph Kloska)
The neighbor, Gwen, patronizes Sydney (I was in a dark room once when I was ill …)
They were all officers. Sydney (Joseph Kloska) is blind, dependent on his family. He is totally bitter about the war in which he won a military cross … for services rendered. He forces his sister and nurse, Eva, to play endless games of chess with him.
Collie (Nick Fletcher) was the captain of a destroyer, a war hero, twenty years in the navy, cast ashore on civvy street with £1000. He invested it in a garage which is rapidly going bust. He was a hero with medals … for services rendered, but as the lawyer Mr Ardsley constantly stresses, ‘not a businessman.’ He shoots himself rather than be arrested for passing bouncing cheques. Being a businessman is the vital 1932 attribute that he lacks.
Howard (Sam Callis) is a tenant farmer, much too common for the family, but married to Ethel. Howard loved the war. It raised him from common farmer to an officer, so a gentleman. He earned more money than before or after. Every woman submitted to a hero in uniform. He wishes the war had never ended. He is a loud drunk, then suddenly a silent, powerful brooding background presence. He is intent on seducing Lois, his sister-in-law. He disgusts her, but she also feels desire. He reckons women like a bit of rough. Lois tells him he smells of cows. ‘A lot of women like that,’ he replies. I should add that a lot of lines drew laughter.
Wilfred (Anthony Calf) and Lois (Yolanda Kettle)
Wilfred (Anthony Calf) is the rich neighbour, and a sleazy Lothario, renting The Manor for the summer. In one scene he declines to lend Collie the £200 that will save him. He doesn’t have the money. In the next he has tried to bribe Lois to run away with him with a pearl necklace that cost hundreds of pounds. There is a strong undercurrent that capitalism has done nothing for the returning heroes. People like Wlfred got all the money.
Mr Ardsley, the father, is a pompous little prick of a lawyer, so brilliantly portrayed by Simon Chandler that at the end my companion had to resist the urge to go up at the end and give him a smack round the head. The tragedy of Sydney’s blindness is not the effect on Sydney himself, but that it has rather inconvenienced Mr Ardsley. He has no one to pass the family firm onto. The three bright daughters don’t come into consideration. Heroes? He was a special constable himself. He was acting as Collie’s lawyer, and on news of his death, opines it was the best thing to do. Totally oblivious to his daughter’s shocked reaction, he keeps repeating that No one is sorrier than I am, of course before adding the “but” … He may have been a very good naval officer. He was a very poor business man. That’s all there is to it. Chichester use that line as the tag for the production.
Dr Prentice (David Annen), Mrs Ardsley (Stella Gonet), Eva (Justine Mitchell)
Dr Prentice is Mrs Ardsley’s brother, the butt of several well-honed doctor jokes too. But an important figure.
Then the women.
Mrs Ardsley (Stella Gonet)
Mrs Ardsley (Stella Gonet) holds the family together. We know she’s ill. Her doctor brother gets her to a consultant. She has a terminal illness (obviously cancer). She refuses an operation. She feels she is “pre-war” as a person and ready and willing to die. Her brother says he will alleviate her suffering. Significantly she asks, “I shall want more than that.” We know what she means. Apparently, King George V was “relieved” to a timetable for the BBC radio news. This is 1932. Maugham is discussing euthanasia. She has also done her mothering role. It’s complete. All part and parcel of how modern the play is.
Eva (Justine Mitchell) is the martyr. As with so many women then, her fiancé, Ted, had died in the war. That’s why Richmal Crompton’s William books of the 1920s and 1930s are so full of spinster aunts. Eva has devoted herself to blind Sydney, but she has had enough. She tries to lend Collie money, but he’s too honourable to take it. After his death, she fantasizes that they were engaged.Finally she believes he is sitll alive.
Ethel (Jo Herbert) is married to the rough and alcoholic tenant-farmer, Howard. They have kids. She knows she was too posh for him.
Lois (Yolanda Kettle) with drunken brother-in-law Howard (Sam Callis)
Lois (Yolanda Kettle) is the star part, I thought. She feels life has passed her by at the grand old age of twenty-six, stuck in this rural backwater. The younger sister, pursued by Wilfred (old enough to be her father) and her brother-in-law, Howard. Lois is a great role. In control, sexy, desirable but always with her feet on the ground.
Howard (Sam Callis) has another go at Lois (Yolanda Kettle)
Gwen (Matilda Zeigler) is Wilfred’s jealous wife. It’s the second marriage for both of them. She immediately knows that the string of pearls that Wilfred has given Lois are real … Lois had been told they were a cheap artificial string.
The ensemble are an example of perfect casting. Every actor inhabits their roles so you cannot imagine anyone else in them. I got fascinated by the stage management of the chess set. Eva throws it on the floor, and during the next conversation, Dr Prentice who is present with nothing to say, picks up the bits, and places most of them back on the board. Good business, but then the cast also know they’ve all been picked up, so there is nothing to slip on! In the next scene, Lois quietly finishes checking it.
Eva (Justine Mitchell, centre) has just heard of Collie’s suicide. Helped off by Howard and Ethel (Jo Herbert)
Let’s take the end. Collie has shot himself. Eva has gone quite mad and believes he is still alive. Mum knows she’s dying of cancer. Sydney has had his full say on the futility of the last war and the stupidity of sacrifice in a coming one. Lois has fled with the greasy Wilf, simply to escape. Gwen has just left saying she might kill herself too. Ethel has let us know that she has realized that Lois is escaping her grasping drunk of a husband.
At the point where he could have heard that his wife is dying, Mr Ardsley says he has work to do in the office, and that he will return in 15 minutes for his tea (so have it ready, is the subtext from this little bully). So then at the very end, father makes an autistic turkeycock patriotic speech about how wonderful everything is and how golden the future of Britain seems.
Poor Eva sings God Save The King in a faltering voice in response. Lights down. The end.
Think yourself into that 1932 theatre. OK, you applaud. Then what? Well, it was the law. You then have to stand for God Save The King … some sang it … again. No doubt some stuffed shirts stood when Eva sang it in the first place. Irony? Subversion? They say Maugham was deliberately creating an antidote to Noel Coward’s plucky fellows in Cavalcade. It is simply one of the best endings ever. I would have been tempted to let the applause run … there was a lot today … then put God Save The Queen over the speakers, though perhaps a modern audience would be unaware that you have to stand to attention. Perhaps not. On the matinee most were older than me. I recall trying to slip out of a cinema during the National Anthem when I was fifteen and having my head smacked so soundly by an old soldier that my ears rang for days. The anthem was a sombre and important moment. So imagine the 1932 impact when it was turned on its head, shown as hollow. That was why the play wasn’t popular. That is why it is such an important play. I rather think the rest of Maugham’s catalogue is neither this “modern” nor this inspiring. If he’d only written this play, he deserves credit as a great 20th century playwright.
A special mention for sound, designed by Mike Walker. The cars coming and going, a plane passing over, a thunderstorm at the start of act three, rain, birdsong, doors slamming … all sounded so real, making a major contribution to the whole.
Howard Davies (online) talked about the long (and also most successful) casting process, and the Chekhovian nature of the play … Chichester’s next venture is its Chekhov season. He said they cut it quite extensively. Maugham tends to digress a lot, and a fault of The Constant Wife is that as well as watching long dialogues, the assembled cast have to react to long monologues too. I haven’t got a text, but I suspect the edits were extensive. The result is a taut play, two hours plus interval. Editing helps. A play with five such strong female roles deserves further productions.
Last year, Howard Davies did The Silver Tassie at the National Theatre, another reaction to The Great War. Because it is more subtle, this is is a far better play.
A five star play
a five star cast
A five star production
W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM ON THIS BLOG:
The Constant Wife, Salisbury Playhouse