The Breadwinner, Orange Tree Theatre, London – review

Somerset Maugham is having an outing on the London stage at the moment. While Before the Party continues at the Almeida Theatre (a Rodney Ackland drama based on a Maugham short story), here Auriol Smith revives his 1930 comedy. And we are in similar territory: a well-heeled family fussing and preening, before one family member drops a bombshell. This time, though, it is the paterfamilias who rattles the bars. A stockbroker, valued only for his pay-packet by his spoilt children and self-absorbed wife, Charles Battle certainly gets their attention when it emerges that he is facing bankruptcy. For a few moments they face the horrid possibility of life without a new tennis court. But what really floors them is that Charles, when offered a lifeline, turns it down.

Remarkably, Maugham’s 80-year-old drama tackles themes that could have rolled out of a playwright’s printer today. Here’s a financial crisis, a bail-out producing a narrow escape from economic catastrophe and an uneasy sense of insecurity papered over with a quick fix. Here too is the impact: while some characters sigh with relief and carry on regardless, others see the moment as a watershed, a time for fundamental change. And Charles’s Damascene conversion from browbeaten breadwinner to free spirit is still shocking.

But while the play feels disturbingly topical in subject, its treatment is less persuasive. It is mordantly funny about the self-centred myopia of its characters, but rather laboriously structured and developed. Much of the first half is devoted to establishing just how shallow and self-centred Charles’s family and friends are. This is amusing, but goes on long beyond the time needed to ascertain that Charles is in fact exercising massive self-control when he elects to walk out on them, rather than push them off a cliff. And it is hard to deliver unselfconsciously, the young characters in particular coming over as a pastiche of 1930s posh.

But the play shifts up several gears once Charles turns the tables on his family and, in his mild-mannered way, questions the very premises of conventional, respectable family life. The different tactics employed by characters to get him to stay are wickedly funny, particularly that of close family friend Dorothy, who makes a brazen attempt at seduction. This scene deservedly draws applause for both Isla Carter’s very funny vamp act and Ian Targett’s nonplussed response. An enjoyable, illuminating and prescient evening, but not quite a lost classic.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.