The Constant Wife, which opened at the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue in April, has moved a door down to the Lyric - and moved up a couple of notches in my estimation, too, with some very welcome cast changes, while those remaining have settled into their paces. What was merely pedestrian before is now newly galvanised as a result: it's amazing to see what effect two truly terrific performances can have, transforming an ordinary evening into a sometimes extraordinary one.
As a result, the production - which was rather hastily put together when it first opened - has grown and matured instead of atrophying. While the play strikes surprisingly modern attitudes behind its very old-fashioned façade, this staging by Edward Hall now captures an exquisite blend of maintaining its period charm and simultaneously revealing its edgier core.
Those qualities are superbly embodied most particularly in two of the new arrivals. As Martha, spinster younger sister to Jenny Seagrove's 'constant wife' Constance, Amanda Harris brings a bossy priggishness to the role that is as hilarious as it is heartless. She has determination and desperation in equal measure, as she seeks to expose the infidelities of Constance's husband to her sister, but also comic grit that'll have you gritting your teeth.
Just as good is Natalie Walter - most recently seen in the National Theatre production of Noises Off as the fluffy airhead actress who kept losing her contact lens - who plays the husband's mistress Mary-Louise with an appealing wide-eyed knowingness that makes her a character, not a caricature as her predecessor Sara Crowe was.
Moira Lister, taking over as Constance's wise old bird of a mother, is of the old school, dispensing aphorisms and old-world glamour in equal measure. Only Rupert Frazer - looking and acting with all the animation of an elongated action doll as Constance's old flame who returns to try to re-ignite their old passion - fails amongst the newcomers to the cast.
Still continuing in their roles, both Steven Pacey and Eric Carte, as cuckolding and cuckolded spouses respectively, maintain their appropriate bluster, while Seagrove remains as calculating as required, though could usefully be a little less remote and disengaged than she appears.
- Mark Shenton
Note: This review dates from April 2002 and the production's original West End dates at the Apollo Theatre.
There's a slightly dizzying sense of déjà vu hanging around Piccadilly Circus at the moment. At the Haymarket, the oft-married Peter Hall is currently directing Oscar Wilde's oft-revived comedy of marital relations, Lady Windermere's Fan, in which a woman (falsely, as it turns out) suspects her husband of infidelity. Meanwhile, at the Apollo up the road, Hall's recently married director son, Edward, turns out to be examining the real unfaithfulness of a husband to his wife of 15 years in a rather more rarely seen 1927 Somerset Maugham play, The Constant Wife.
It's not just the same subject matter that is occupying both father and son that adds a theatrical frisson here. It's also that Hall Junior (having recently made the news for resigning a directorial commission from the RSC, a company his father founded) is now working on this production for producer Bill Kenwright, with whom Sir Peter had a monumental falling out a few years ago.
Maugham's play, to add to the intrigue, is all about the adjustments we routinely make in life to accommodate our changing domestic and professional arrangements. Edward Hall has made a different kind of compromise to find himself on Shaftesbury Avenue for the first time; but the result finds himself competing with his father, too, for who could produce the more leaden production.
It's distressingly a case of 'like father, like son' in more ways than one here. Neither of them is helped by either their designers - Windermere takes my vote for the ugliest design of the year so far, but Michael Pavelka's drawing room setting here isn't much more exciting - or the companies they are directing.
In this case, the cast is solid enough but largely stolid. They rarely register any kind of emotional connection with either each other or the material. It's all performed purely on the surface. As the knowingly cuckolded wife, Jenny Seagrove (battling flu on press night) is husky, serene and determined, as required, in the face of husband Steven Pacey's blustering infidelity with her best friend, Marie-Louise (a caricature Sara Crowe).
But Maugham's period play would be a tough call to bring to life anyway. It's debate - on how women are expected to tolerate and even embrace the infidelity of their partners but perish the thought that they achieve their own economic independence and turn the tables on the men - is ultimately both dated and unconvincing.
- Mark Shenton