Somerset Maugham is almost forgotten today but he was a huge best-seller in his time and, as the programme notes tell us, at one stage had four hit plays running in London.
From this distance, it’s hard to see why. His plays are well-crafted but were probably looking old-fashioned in the 20s. This play was first produced in the same year as Six Characters in search of an Author, also being performed at Chichester. Comparing the two, it seems barely credible that they come from the same century, let alone the same year so formulistic and mannered is Maugham's play.
The premise is a simple one: Lady Kitty has abandoned her husband and her child to elope with her married lover; now, 30 years later and visiting the son, she learns that her daughter-in-law is about to do the same thing. Much of the play is concerned with the scandal that would ensue – this being an age when adultery would have been treated with scorn rather than lauded on the pages of glossy magazines and tabloids.
I find it hard to believe that this was ground-breaking stuff in the 20s – attitudes to divorce were already changing – it looks positively antediluvian now. I suspect that Maugham was thinking of a time in his youth when such indiscretions were career threatening (I’m sure it’s not coincidence that the scandal is about a Kitty having an affair with a politician whose name begins with P). It’s not quite as simplistic as that – Maugham has a decidedly cynical approach to the theme of romantic love.
For all the stiffness of the plot – and the preponderance of adjectives such as ripping, beastly and breezy – there are some good lines, (although, I suspect not quite as good as Maugham thought them to be) most of them delivered by the cynical Clive Champion-Cheney, Lady Kitty's former husband and smoothly played by David Yelland.
Indeed, the whole cast do full justice to the play, particularly Richard Lintern as the stiff Arnold, the betrayed husband. It would have been easy to play him as a a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman but he bought a touch of sympathy to the part too. As Lord Porteous, Kitty's lover and prime minister manqué, Philip Voss’s gruffness is a bit too much of a caricature but becomes more recognisably human by the end of the play, while Charity Wakefield strikes the right notes as the love-struck young wife, Elizabeth. Susan Hampshire marks her return to Chichester, playing Lady Kitty (some 30 years after playing Elizabeth). It’s a striking performance but she’s too old for the part.
Jonathan Church's production is slickly done but I couldn't help thinking the whole thing had an air of a spoof about it. Well acted it maybe but probably as relevant to the modern age as a pair of spats.