The Servant is a revival that succeeds where so many others fail - by not only bringing new meaning to the original but also improving it immeasurably in the process. Robin Maugham first unleashed this nasty little tale about a young toff and his manipulative manservant as a novella in 1948. A decade later, he censored it for a stage version; in 1963, Harold Pinter had a go with a screenplay; and in 1968, Maugham responded with another theatrical re-write. It wasn't until penning his memoirs in 1972 that the author revealed the highly semi-autobiographical nature of the story.
For this latest reworking, Neil Bartlett returns to Maugham's original book, incorporating previously deleted material and employing sure-handed direction and clever casting to bring to the fore the homo-erotic sub-text previously only hinted at.
Set in the 1960s, this Servant begins when Tony (Jack Davenport) returns to London, desperate for a "civilised existence", after five years in Africa. He collects his inheritance, promptly purchases a ramshackle Chelsea house, found for him by his devoted friend Richard (Crispin Letts), and hires Barrett (Michael Feast) to wait on him hand and foot. All is quite jolly to start, but events turn sinister quickly. The balance of power between master and servant is well and truly reversed as Tony becomes lulled into a state of exasperating complacency by the lure of first comfort and then corruption.
With the struggle between those "with private incomes" and those without, the situation overtly draws into question the social hierarchies of the day. What is more subtle is the sexual power play simmering beneath. Initially, the triangle set up between Tony, his posh girlfriend (Emma Amos) and the working class chambermaid (Zoe Telford) who Barrett has hired in for a seduction takes centre stage. But as the disturbing second Act unfolds and the women fall by the wayside, it becomes obvious that the real triangle of love and lust revolves instead around Tony, Barrett and the ever-faithful Richard, with the arrival of a rent-boy named Mabel (Ryan Early) finally erasing any doubts.
Davenport is picture-perfect as the spoiled Tony, and his transformation from spirited aristo to shambling, PJ-clad mess is unmistakable. That said, Davenport's performance could benefit from more nuance. Despite his change of fortune, Tony's air of arrogant entitlement and spitting petulance seems a tad too unshakable.
Feast, on the other hand, conveys Barrett's multiple personae with scary effectiveness - from obsequious underling to mean-spirited schemer, spivvy-suited pimp, prissy housewife, jealous lover and sadistic dominatrix. He dominates in his time on stage, a bundle of menace and biting humour.
The other cast members provide sturdy support as does Rae Smith's dark-lit set, with its red-carpeted staircase leading ominously up to Barrett's second-floor servant's room.