In 1918, the First World War drew to an exhausted close and W Somerset Maugham, himself exhausted after a bout of tuberculosis, retreated to a Scottish sanatorium to convalesce. You might think such a state of affairs would dampen Maugham's spirits and steer his writing towards sombre reflection. Quite the opposite turned out to be the case.
In fact, the author recalls his "grand time" at the sanatorium where he "discovered for the first time in my life how very delightful it is to lie in bed". It was in this elevated frame of mind that he penned Home and Beauty, which "pretends to be no more" than a farce whose object "is the entertainment of the audience, not their improvement."
More than eight decades on, Home and Beauty retains its power to amuse and, more than three decades after its last London revival (at the National with Geraldine McEwan, Robert Stephens and Robert Lang in 1968), director Christopher Luscombe rediscovers this comic gem with a bright and buzzy new production.
Major William Cardew (Alexander Armstrong) returns from the front to find his wife Victoria, who thought him fallen at Ypres, has remarried his best friend, another major, Frederick Lowndes (Jamie Theakston). The two husbands engage in a rather ungentlemanly battle over the lady - but rather than win her, both are desperate to be rid of her. Which works out rather conveniently for Victoria, who has trained her eye on husband number three (Cameron Blakely), a profiteering businessman with the means to keep her in the style she prefers.
At the centre of this sits Victoria Hamilton, who plays her namesake with a zaniness untapped in her previous, award-winning, dramatic performances. "There are only two qualities that I flatter myself on: I'm not vain and I'm not selfish," pronounces her lady of the house, before proceeding to prove otherwise. With heaving chest, quivering lip, tossing mane, and all manner of mincing and posturing, Hamilton is a bundle of unstoppable comic energy. This is without question the Victoria Hamilton show and she is sensational.
Not that her fellow cast members don't acquit themselves well enough. As the downtrodden husbands, Armstrong and Theakston never reach the same heights but they're both likeable, the former opting for bluster over the latter's bemusement. There are some nice cameos too from Jane How's mother-in-law, Jeanne Hepple's prospective cook and Janet Renfrey's over-the-hill maiden-for-hire, all dispensing pithy if unsuitable advice.
Simon Higlett's Westminster house designs grow easier on the eye with each flight down, from Victoria's gruesome pink boudoir to minimalist cream drawing room to earthy below-stairs kitchen. Unfortunately, the set changes force two intervals between the three short acts, a decision which disrupts the flow of Luscombe's otherwise highly enjoyable production.