Review: The Sacred Flame, by Somerset Maugham, English Touring Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre

The Sacred Flame, by Somerset Maugham, English Touring Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, until Saturday October 13

The director’s notes in the programme talk about dusting down an old classic but this murder mystery family drama is surprisingly contemporary in its morals and its frank dialogue.

It seems that Philip Larkin was wrong when he said that sex was discovered in the sixties because sex and love, in all their infinite variety, are alive and well in this engrossing 1928 drama.

I suppose its contemporary nature is reflected in its stylised set and in its rather strange electronic score which dovetails the beginning and the end of each act. It’s also reflected in the rather ritualised set-dressing carried out by the cast and by two rather conspicuous stage managers at the very start of the show. The props are laid out, one at a time, and each person waits until the other is finished before they start their task.

All this combines to give the play a Brechtian feel before a word is spoken. I’m not sure what the director Matthew Dunster was trying to achieve with this effect but it did nothing to either enhance the contemporary nature of the subject matter or add to the period atmosphere.

After the rather baffling start the play explodes into life once the lights go down and the actors are let off the leash. Within a few short lines we discover that young aviator Maurice Tabret (Jamie De Courcey) has been left bed-ridden by a devastating crash. He is cared for by the devoted Nurse Wayland (Sarah Churm), he is still passionately in love with his wife Stella (Beatriz Romilly) and his brother Colin (David Ricardo-Pearce) is about to return to South America after an extended stay which saddens his mother (Margot Leicester).

The family is supported by frequent concerned visits from Dr Harvester (Al Nedjari) and a seemingly bewildered retired Major Lecnda (Robert Demeger).

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But, nothing as it seems. A family relationship drama is suddenly transformed into a murder mystery when the seemingly chipper Maurice suddenly dies and Nurse Wayland cries murder.

But, as Alfred Hitchcock would say, the murder is merely the McGuffin. The real meat of the story lies in the tangled sexual and emotional relationships going on between the various members of the household. It’s a fascinating character study which Maugham has written with great skill and is played with great vitality by the cast who keep things moving at an incredible speed.

Mathew Dunster brings out the emotional entanglements well and uses the multi-level set cleverly to stop the scenes getting too static and too talky. One thing he needs to do is prevent one or two actors from getting too shouty.

There are some emotional sequences towards the end of the first half when voices become too strident for too long. It is possible for people to get upset and vary the tone and pitch – may introduce emotions such as bitterness or regret or sarcasm instead of seeing who can shout the loudest.

But, this is the only downside of an otherwise compelling play. Mrs Tabret’s wonderfully serene assessment of the world and its morals is a revelation. Played with great authority by Margot Leicester, it is her character which gives the play its contemporary edge with her honest, hard-won wisdom.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep audiences guessing. Some are expected, others are not. English Touring Theatre has indeed brought new life to a classic but the real star is Somerset Maugham. He penned what we presumed to be a straight forward murder mystery and instead gave us an engaging lesson in relationships and the true importance of love in all its forms.

Andrew Clarke

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