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'The Constant Wife' by W Somerset Maugham
Last uploaded : Monday 30th Sep 2002 at 23:39
Contributed by : Carol Gould



It is not often that these columns gush about a play. Indeed, it is no secret that good writing for the theatre has become a rare commodity in London since the 1980s. One of the reasons why our ‘reviews’ section has remained painfully sparse is because we dread the plethora of ‘revivals’ that fill the London stage. At the Royal National Theatre, Artistic Director Trevor Nunn has been criticised for generating so many revivals of Broadway shows. The eminent critic Sheridan Morley has suggested that Nunn could revive obscure but worthy musicals if he is to continue the practice at all. (It will be interesting to see if Nicholas Hytner follows this path when he takes over at the National for the 2003 season.) Needless to say, the Nunn revival of ‘My Fair Lady,’ despite the debacle of Martine McCutcheon’s protracted illnesses during the run, was a huge success and is still playing to big houses at Drury Lane.

It was therefore with trepidation that we ventured to the Lyric Theatre, having been urged by even the most jaded colleagues to see the revival of Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Constant Wife.’ Directed by Edward Hall, (he is the son of Sir Peter) this story of a wife’s extraordinary stoicism in the face of her husband’s infidelity with her best friend is a staggering piece of drama that resonates with the twenty-first century as fiercely as if it had been written last year.

Jenny Seagrove as the wronged wife (Constance Middleton) gives a towering performance and is supported by a faultless cast. The gorgeous – but not distracting -- set by Michael Pavelka and superb lighting by Ben Ormrod add to the magic of this production; Hall has extracted the finest performance I have seen in years from Rupert Frazer as Constance’s long-lost suitor-turned-lover Bernard. Steven Pacey, as Constance’s husband John is suitably slimy, and his fury when she reveals her intention to holiday with her lover evoked hisses and cat-calls from the females in the audience the night we attended. Moira Lister as Constance’s perpetually-appalled, Victorian-era mother is a treasure, and Amanda Harris as Constance’s sister Martha is a revelation. Martha has perhaps the best of Maugham’s writing and is astoundingly 1990s in her attitude and behaviour. Like Tennessee Williams, Maugham possessed a staggering insight into marriage and the female mind. The script is rich with references to the aspirations of women – sexual and professional – and the play taken as a whole is a feminist polemic that does not hector but in fact charms, cajoles and seduces.

This is London theatre at its most breathtaking. It is a must-see.

The prolific Maugham wrote ‘The Constant Wife’ in 1927, the year of his divorce. Shortly afterwards, he and wartime friend Gerald Haxton would establish a permanent and happy home together; their relationship ended with Haxton’s untimely death in 1944. Maugham wrote a stinging attack on the rise of totalitarianism in Europe in 1939 and was blacklisted by the Gestapo. He had to leave Europe and spent the rest of the war in America. After the war his work became patchy and less pointed; he died a bitter and lonely man, but this play, written during the height of his prowess, is a classic of twentieth century drama – it declares the equality of women in relationships and asserts that adultery is not the sole domain of ‘mischievous husbands.’

If you are in London, do not miss this evening of pure joy.
‘The Constant Wife’ is playing at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London ; (ticket office tel no 0870 890 1107 or phone your ticket agent)


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