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A CurtainUp Review
The Constant Wife
by Lizzie Loveridge

No one can make yesterday's cold mutton into tomorrow lamb cutlets.  
-- Constance

The Constant Wife
Jenny Seagrove as Constance and Linda Thorson as Mrs Culver
(Photo: Alistair Muir)
The plays of W. Somerset Maugham are rarely performed nowadays although in 1908 he set the record for the greatest number of plays (four) running in the West End of London and inspired a cartoon which featured a peevish William Shakespeare asking the question, "Somerset who?". Maugham was a contemporary of Noel Coward and their plays have similarities in terms of the type of society they portray. Maugham's, however, are decidedly out of fashion. He was a prolific playwright and also a writer of novels and short stories. Coward's last play about an embittered writer, A Song at Twilight is a thinly disguised portrait of the elderly Maugham.

There is much to like about The Constant Wife (1927). It is a gentle drawing room comedy about marital infidelity with an unconventional ending. As an old fashioned straight play it is most refreshing in its simplicity. Maugham's light wit is not as quotable as that of Wilde or Coward but The Constant Wife has many amusing observations on the human condition.

The marriage of top London surgeon John (Steven Pacey) and Constance Middleton (Jenny Seagrove) is the subject of gossip because of John's extra-marital affair with Constance's friend Marie-Louise Durham (Sarah Crowe). It is assumed by her mother, sister and friends that Constance is unaware of her husband's infidelity. When confronted by Marie-Louise's husband, Constance coolly gives the lovers an alibi and convinces Mortimer Durham (Eric Carte) that he must be mistaken. In the following year, Constance starts work as an interior designer and becomes economically independent from her husband. She then leaves on a long holiday to Italy with Bernard Kersal (Simon Williams), her long term admirer. Constance is not a feminist, she delivers the line, "I'm tired of being a modern wife - a prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods!"

The play has some contrasting portraits of women. Constance's mother Lady Culver (Linda Thorson), dressed as if she is still in 1918, believes that all men will stray and that the onus is on women to turn a blind eye. Her prickly sister, Martha (Serena Evans), has a spinsterly, cynical and entrenched mistrust of men. Then there is career woman, Barbara Fawcett (Lucy Fleming), who runs her own business and Marie-Louise, a real "blonde" who wears diaphanous frocks in the middle of the day.

The men are Bentley the butler (Robin Browne), the consultant surgeon and womaniser John Middleton, the cuckolded husband Mortimer Durham and the eternal lover Bernard Kersal.

All the performances are more than competent. Edward Hall's direction holds no surprises but is as elegant as Michael Pavelka's cream and gold drawing room set. I suspect that Constance's views about equating economic and sexual independence are really Maugham's own and I enjoyed her public revenge on the husband who lives by this double standard: " If a husband is unfaithful to his wife, she is an object of sympathy but if a woman is unfaithful to her husband, he is an object of ridicule."

You might want to check out Curtain Up's review of another and similar Somerset Maugham play
The Circle

The Constant Wife
Written by W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by Edward Hall

Starring: Jenny Seagrove
With: Linda Thorson, Robin Browne, Serena Evans, Lucy Fleming, Sara Crowe, Steven Pacey, Simon Williams, Eric Carle
Design: Michael Pavelka
Lighting Design: Ben Ormerod
Sound design: Simon Whitehorn
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1101
Booking to 29th June 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th April 2002 performance at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1

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