W Somerset Maugham was considered part of the establishment for so long that the anti-war theme in his 1932 drama, For Services Rendered, caused an outcry that prompted its closure in the West End after just 78 performances.
Tonight Chichester’s Minerva Theatre grasped the nettle and gave full force to Maugham’s rage.
His abhorrence of war, and its terrible consequences for families everywhere, spewed forth in every word of dialogue spoken by the beleaguered Ardsley family. It’s not surprising that England was appalled.
Young men went into WWI under the impression that it was a jolly adventure for the good of the country but they returned home broken, wrecked by mustard gas, trench warfare and disillusioned by seeing a colossal loss of life for the gain of a few feet of ground.
The last thing the public needed was a playwright banging on about the futility of war. They needed to be reassured that the ultimate sacrifice that their husbands and sons made was worthwhile.
There are moments in For Services Rendered when you forget that the story is based in the 1930s. Its themes are still with us.
Collie Stratton’s story is the play’s ultimate tragedy. He spent 20 years in the navy, fighting for his country. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order – but, post-war, he, and thousands like him, were dismissed from the service to a life in civvies.
They were lost. Officers from all the armed forces were thrust into the marketplace to try and make a life for themselves – but after a life-time’s service they were incapable of any other trade…just as service personnel returning from Afghanistan have found.
For Services Rendered centres around the Ardsley family, solicitor father (the dependable Simon Chandler), their doughty mother (Stella Gonet being very heroic), three daughters and a son.
Maugham’s words are terribly stilted by today’s standards. Ne’er-do-wells are called rotters; those behaving badly are beasts or brutes. It’s all terribly twee.
He spends the opening giving us a lot of exposition to explain the set-up before launching into a polemic denouncing the consequences of war. It gets rather overblown and tiresome and makes the dialogue between characters stiff and awkward with lots of uncomfortable silences.
The wife is being resolute. There’s something the matter but she’s maintaining a stiff upper lip, while the three daughters struggle to cope with post-war life.
The youngest, Lois (a spirited Yolanda Kettle) is 26 and desperate to flee the nest while sensible Ethal (Jo Herbert) jumped at the chance of marrying (below her, as it turns out), only to find her “bit of rough” prefers alcohol to tending the farm.
Poor desperate Eva (Justine Mitchell giving an intense turn) is stuck being the drudge, sacrificing her future happiness to care for her cynical, angry brother, Sydney, who was blinded in the line of duty.
The patriarch swans in every now and then to take tea or pronounce but has little to do with his family’s welfare.
And bursting into this fractured set-up is wealthy retired businessman Anthony Calf’s Wilfred, who is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis and is infatuated with young Lois, while his frustrated wife, Gwen (Matilda Zieglar) who has seen it countless times before, can only watch and wait for it to blow over.
I should think Calf must be pretty horrified at being cast as “the old fogey”. I couldn’t help thinking that he was much too young to portray a silly old fool with more money than sense.
Justine Mitchell too, says she is the same age as failed garage owner Collie (Nick Fletcher) yet she looks young enough to be his daughter.
But it’s a well-acted ensemble piece with the daughters, particularly, displaying the fury of their gender as they fight their own war to break free from convention.
No-one is happy in this story. Everyone is broke and struggling to survive. The Nirvana promised by the success of The Great War hasn’t filtered down to communities. What was it all for?
For Services Rendered isn’t a barrel of laughs but each character, once stripped of Maugham’s politicising, is richly drawn and familiar to us. The different generations face their own battles to rebuild lives shattered by four years of fighting.
Life would never be the same after the war. Classes, society, and its structure, was changed forever and this thought-provoking piece addresses that, albeit rather heavy-handedly.
Howard Davies’ absorbing production has themes that are just as relevant today but I expect audiences, particularly those who have lost sons in recent conflicts, are likely to react as they did when it first premiered in 1932. No-one wants to face the harsh reality of war.
For Services Rendered runs in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until September 5.
For Services Rendered
W Somerset Maugham gives full vent to his anger about the futility of war in his great 1932 drama, For Services Rendered, which opened at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre tonight.