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The Constant Wife (Salisbury)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife, premiered on Broadway in 1926, starring Ethel Barrymore and played a respectable 295-performances before moving to London. It did not fare well in the transfer – perhaps because ‘between-the-wars’ London was desperately trying to hold on to a society that was mortally wounded in the Great War, and Maugham’s realist, cynical view of the state of ‘modern’ marriage and a woman’s role in it, was just too shocking at the time. Happily it has enjoyed numerous successful revivals over the years, and today’s audiences can delight in the razor sharp dialogue, which appears both insightful and naïve in turns.

Philip Wilson’s cracking new production is played in an elegant 1920s drawing room (sumptuously designed by Colin Falconer) in the home of Constance Middleton (Susie Trayling) and her surgeon husband, John (David Michaels). To all intents and purposes, they appear to have enjoyed 15 years of blissful marriage, and make the most of their privileged place in society. But scratch under the surface and their life is not so rosy. Aware of John’s persistent infidelity with family friend Marie-Louise (Saskia Butler), Constance's sister Martha (Sophie Roberts) and mother (Maggie Steed) cannot agree on whether to tell her what everyone else about her knows. Constance’s blind devotion to her husband is, however, as much a masquerade as the ‘perfect marriage’ itself, and when she is forced to admit to the knowledge of the situation, amazes her family with her unsentimental and pragmatic approach.

As the redoubtable matriarch, Mrs Culver, Maggie Steed heads a strong cast, and has more than her fair share of witty one-liners and sharp retorts, arguing the case for status quo, accepting the ‘wickedness’ of man, but demanding the fidelity of woman. Susie Trayling’s Constance is both empowered and compassionate, and her sense of period comedy superb. David Michaels, as the errant husband, has little to do in the first half, but comes into his own when his hypocritical outrage bursts forth as events turn against him.

Simon Thorpe, as Bernard, James Clarkson (Bentley), Claudia Elmhirst (Barbara) and Dyfrig Morris, as Mary-Louise’s cuckolded husband, Mortimer, complete a first class line up.

Philip Wilson’s stylish production rejoices in the richness of the English language and brings out the warmth and wit of Maugham’s sometimes rather cynical but truthful take on life.

The Constant Wife plays at the Salisbury Playhouse until 5 March


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