The Sacred Flame
English Touring Theatre’s revival of Somerset Maugham’s 1928 melodrama is the latest manifestation of a renewed interest in the forgotten part of the repertoire; it’s a murder mystery as well as an “issue” drama about mercy killing that still strikes a real chord.
But what really intrigues is Maugham’s writing about female sexuality and compassion. There are three great roles in the play for women devoted, in separate ways, to Maurice Tabret (Jamie De Courcey) the bed-bound victim of a plane crash, who has lain inert for five years, conscious but helpless; and dead below the waist.
His pretty young wife Stella (Beatriz Romilly) has remained loyal but has also sought discreet physical comfort with Maurice’s brother, Colin (David Riccardo-Pearce), a coffee plantation owner from Guatemala. His nurse, Wayland (Sarah Churm), offers him the intimate care and attention he queasily forbids Stella administering. And his imperious mother, Mrs Tabret (Margot Leicester), the play’s conscience, understands Stella’s predicament, arguing for a more flexible society rule-book on sexual behaviour and aberration.
The play seems modern in unexpected ways, exploiting both Maugham’s experience of medical training (like Agatha Christie, he knows about drugs) and his own liberal instincts when it comes to the equation between human need and moral responsibility. And it’s funny, too. After one shattering revelation, Colin flatly declares, “We can’t have lunch now, mother!”
Director Matthew Dunster responds with a restless, edgy production – even allowing dialogue to overlap in a rather inappropriate Caryl Churchill-y way – designed by Anna Fleischle as a rectangular art deco box with steel rods and high doorways, and Maurice permanently visible upstage, even when “off” (I do hope a fly doesn’t tickle his nose one night).
The acting is good, not top drawer, with some variable vocal performances (flat intonation, careless articulation) that let down Maugham’s deceptively elegant and demanding prose. But this is yet another good example – following Emlyn Williams and J B Priestley at the Finborough – of a play whose time has come again and which anyway exerts a fascination in its own right.
Margot Leicester finds a real momentum in her emotional journey as the matriarch, trailing experience of her life in India – the staple detection part of the story-line is laced with metaphysical expression, too – and her once powerful attraction to Robert Demeger’s amusingly dapper and concerned army major, splendidly attired in a cream summer suit and two-tone shoes in the third act.
Photo: Beatriz Romilly & Jamie De Courcey (Mark Douet)