It is hard to see how Sheppey, an absorbing, funny, sometimes uncomfortable ultimately unclassifiable play, could be better done; and if you seek an antidote to traditional Christmas fare at the theatre, do find your way to Richmond over the coming weeks.
Somerset Maugham is not exactly a neglected author, but the range and diversity of his literary achievement is underappreciated, and nowhere is that more true than in the case of his plays, which covered thirty years of his career, and of which this one, Sheppey, was the last.
Their tone and scope and genre are hard to classify: they are realistic in the sense that the characters are neatly observed representations of men and women from a variety of social classes from the Edwardian era through to the 1930s. But they are far from being two-dimensional drawing-room comedies either. Maugham aimed to dig deeper and dramatise moral dilemmas that go beyond time and place though still plausibly encased within the humour and behaviour patterns of a particular period.
Sheppey appears on the surface to be a wry and dry comedy playing up to the author’s conventional reputation as a worldly and world-weary cynic, but in fact it is a much deeper more serious meditation on our obligations to each other and ourselves in an unequal world. It evokes the spirit of his great hero Guy de Maupassant, who always believed that the most slight and piquant episode offered rich scope for pointing a moral fable.
It also shows the author’s powers of observation and empathy across the social gamut, something born of his early life as a trainee doctor. The dilemmas explored here are very much still with us and the play leaves the audience all the more uncomfortable because it avoids pat solutions and embraces real complexity.
Sheppey (John Ramm) is a cheeky-chappy of a hairdresser, set in a middle-aged routine of shaving wealthy clients and blagging his way into selling them plausible hair dyes under another logo. We seem him joshing with his clients alongside the owner of the salon, and a chirpy, gamine manicurist. The first act for the most part flows past as piece of innocuous fluently paced naturalism, but this impression flatters to deceive.
In fact Maugham is already laying the foundations for what is to come by exploring the boundaries of poverty and our obligation to relieve it. Is inequality just part of the natural order? And even if it is not, what can or should any individual do to prevail given the scale of broad injustice. Should one rise up to the challenge of the life of Christ and other religious prophets or content oneself with conventional goodness and the mouthing of pieties within the framework of friends and family?
These initially stray observations snap into focus when Sheppey, always one for a flutter on the horses, wins a residuary prize in a race and suddenly finds that when it comes to it he does not want to use the money in the ways he expected. Instead, to the consternation of his family and boss, he proposes to find happiness by giving it away to the deserving poor, whom he considers no different from anyone else other than in lack of good fortune.
He begins by befriending and bringing into his home a classy tart with a heart, Bessie Legros and a petty thief whom he has caught in the act. The second act, the best of the three, fizzes along as the dramatic consequences of this act work themselves through in a Shavian quality of debate, and several moments of inspirational meltdown based on timeless, class-based English comedy.
In the third act, moral sympathies shift again, this time away from Sheppey, as even the reprobates revolt against his charity in favour of resuming their old order of familiar conventional crime, and the focus shifts to the dilemma of Sheppey’s wife, keen to balance support for her husband with the need to place a restraint over the course of his actions.
The ending is indeed ambiguous, but not unsatisfying, in its balanced reminder that there are real limits to the scope of our individual actions whether going against the grain or ingratiating ourselves with it.
This play covers many of the same themes as Priestley’s An Inspector Calls from a decade later, but pursues them more searchingly and dispassionately. Certainly anyone fresh from the hysterical overstatement (for all its brilliant stagecraft) of the new revival of Stephen Daldry’s production of the latter play will breathe more easily here.
The conflicts between the rival demands of the individual and the community and the questions of where to locate the boundaries of duties to self or family or one’s fellow men are explored both with dramatic skill, dry understated humour, and scrupulous balance.
Some critics find Maugham’s ending evasive because it refuses finally to take a black-and-white, definitive position on the moral dilemmas and resorts instead to parable and non-realistic time suspensions (in some ways actually anticipating Priestley’s later steps in the same direction). However, this option works well dramatically.
The playwright is not a preacher or a philosopher: the dimensions of a problem are fully represented through the interplay of the characters, and it is the lives and situations of the characters that need to be resolved not the ultimate questions of right and wrong which are best left to marinade in the minds of the audience as they leave the auditorium on their journeys home.
In a play as subtle as this so much depends on the quality of the playing; and in this respect Paul Miller’s direction of the cast is uniformly impressive, even compelling. This kind of dialogue can look very flat on the page, but in an intimate theatre setting and with these players it fairly zips along: what is a long play passes both pleasurably and swiftly, with fine detail, shading and fizz, when required, in all the performances.
John Ramm has the charm and the force of personality to dominate as Sheppey should: he is an ordinary man with an extraordinary vision. This is a difficult combination to bring off – goodness is notoriously difficult to make interesting – but his lithe physical performance and cheeky but shrewd understanding of other people, if not himself, is sensitively conveyed.
Goodness needs hard edges and resistance if it is to stand out and it finds all of these in the layered performances of Sheppey’s family: his brittle ambitious daughter Florrie is played by Katie Moore, who also takes on the parallel role of the socially aspiring manicurist in the first act; her fiancé Ernie, a well-intentioned, but ambitious and priggish teacher, is taken by Josh Dylan, and Sarah Ball is his long-suffering wife, who tries to ensure that domestic peace is maintained.
All of them evince the kind of social anxiety and conventional aspirations that Sheppey so notably sheds, and react in different ways, through anger, social panic, stoic acceptance and, to a degree, a stripping away of illusions that once again parallels what happens to the Birling family in An Inspector Calls. These could be stuffy, two-dimensional roles in a lesser production but here the actors fill out and reveal what the author only left implicit.
The same may be said of the two outsiders, Bessie and Cooper. These are carefully layered performances, full of wan defeat and damage and defiant pluck on Bessie’s part and quickly sparked aggression and confusion with Cooper.
Dickie Beau in particular is a revelation in the role of Bessie, a prostitute who embodies the best of human instincts and a fatalism and lack of remaining strength to strike out on a different path. Her/his scenes with Sheppey are the most compelling and heartfelt of the play, and remind us of how good Maugham was in creating ambiguous heroines who muddle through as best they can and do not aspire to conventional heroic acts (Rosie Driffield is another).
There was also some good work from Geff Francis as Sheppey’s boss, though he could have demonstrated more authority and command in the first act, which would then have made slightly better sense of his slightly menacing almost Pinteresque interventions in the second. Brendan Hooper was a spry client in Act One, and a nicely contrasted embodiment of medical conceit in the later stages.
As always at the Orange Tree, set design achieves a high and flexible standard in the hands of Simon Daw, who evokes a Jermyn Street salon and a shabby South London sitting room with equal period skill and quirky detail. The same goes for the tasteful incidental music and sound design from Max Pappenheim that greatly enhanced the frequent moments when a departure from realism is required.
It is hard to see how this absorbing, funny, sometimes uncomfortable, ultimately unclassifiable play could be better done; and if you seek an antidote to traditional Christmas fare at the theatre, do find your way to Richmond over the coming weeks.