W Somerset Maugham wrote his most immediate response to the horrors of war as eye-witness accounts in his Writer’s Notebooks during the First World War. The play For Services Rendered, his more considered response, came in the early Thirties, when economic depression meant unemployment for millions and the prescient could see war threatening again.
The family and friends who gather at the Ardsley’s comfortable Home Counties mansion may expect to find tea on the table promptly at five pm, but their cheerful exteriors and social niceties conceal so many souls in turmoil. Passion and lust, unrequited love and bankruptcy, and even terminal illness, all threaten what proves to be a fragile status quo.
Relationships and individuals break down. At the shocking climax, Sydney, the son of the family (a convincing Richard Clothier), who lost his sight winning a DSO “for services rendered” in the First World War, delivers Maugham’s devastating attack on the futility of war, its far-reaching consequences and the cynicism of those who wage it.
When it premiered in 1932, the play was hailed by some, condemned by others; but everyone took note of this serious drama from the man who made his fortune with crowd-pleasing drawing-room comedies. So has it stood the test of time?
Director Edward Hall has assembled a crack cast of 12 for a period piece that could seem dated however timely its portrayal of this microcosm of a society breaking down. The so-called “well-made play” needs committed actors to play it to the hilt. Led by John Nettleton’s blinkered paterfamilias Leonard, and Polly Adam’s decent, plucky homemaker Charlotte, everyone achieves individuality in a strong ensemble – and they convey that vital sense of period on Frances O'Connor’s versatile set.
The women especially shine. Abigail McKern is heartrending as the daughter, Eva, desperate to escape spinsterhood, despite the grim examples of her sister Ethel (a beautifully restrained Issy Van Randwyck) and neurotic family friend Gwen (sympathetic Lucy Fleming). These two put brave faces on marriages soured by neglectful and faithless husbands. And newcomer Olivia Llewllyn is spot on as the younger, free-thinking sister, Lois.
Despite some clunky plot exposition, it’s not hard to see why Hall has revived a play he proves still has power to engage an audience.