Somerset Maugham’s The Breadwinner first opened at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1930, and depicts a decadent, superficial youth, oblivious of the shackles of war that the previous generation experienced.
The (somewhat aptly named) Battle family represent the ostensibly happy, frivolously shallow middle-class elite made prosperous from the post-war golden years of the stock exchange. Yet scandal is afoot at the Battle household, when it is revealed that Charles Battle, after his long years spent trading shares to provide for the trivial whims of his family, is ‘hammered’, that is, bankrupt, and has decided to up-sticks, on his own, to America.
This kitchen sink drama is delightfully funny, with a host of inane characters that capture Maugham’s scornful view of post-war society. Auriol Smith has directed this production in-the-round, drawing the audience into the intimate dilemma that the Battle’s face. Good use is made of the space, with three corners providing entrances and exits, and the closeness of the actors to their viewers often heightens the comedy.
Sam Downson’s set is simple but effective, hinting at the subtle taste of this prosperous family, and the bright lights throughout the theatre enable the audience to eyeball each other - perhaps in an attempt to unite the spectators, or reflect on the state of our own relationships?
The actors in this production are extremely (and comically) energetic, which can feel a little tiresome at times given the fast-paced nature of the play. Some breathing space, or quieter, more intimate moments might heighten the more farcical episodes quite nicely. Nonetheless, there is a high level of commitment from the actors who immerse themselves in their world entirely, which, whilst at times rendering some characters as more caricatured than living, breathing individuals, adds to the enjoyment of the show.
Ian Targett’s depiction of Charles Battle is most interesting to watch, perhaps due to his character’s denouncement of facade and pretence, and provides a stark contrast to the relentlessly superficial behaviour and demands of the others.
In all, this production of The Breadwinner is fun, flippant and frivolous, imbued with gags and giggles. However, the abrupt ending of the play is just one signifier of the lack of any real message or moral lurking underneath, rendering the play a little more style over substance - oh but what style indeed!