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A CurtainUp London Review
The moment I arrive he goes running down to the basement to butter up that ghastly creature . . . . I can't bear him . . . . I detest him. -- Sally
Maugham re-worked and re-shaped his play several times during his career. His own father, who was the then Lord Chancellor, head of Britain's Parliamentary Upper Chamber, the House of Lords, tried to halt the publication of the novel and in the stage version Maugham censored his own novel when he made one of the characters, the homosexual publisher, Richard Merton, heterosexual.
The Servant is being re-staged by Neil Bartlett on his return to the Lyric Hammersmith where he is artistic director, , after eighteen months of illness. He uses the 1958 version of the play and incorporates some previously altered or deleted material, but all of the text is Maugham's . The time is the early 1960s.
An upper class young man, Tony (Jack Davenport) returns from Africa with enough money to buy a small house in London's Chelsea. Tony employs Barrett (Michael Feast) a manservant to run the household for him. His friend, Richard Merton (Crispin Letts), and girlfriend Sally (Emma Amos) try to help him settle and find a job in the city. Barrett, who caters for Tony's every comfort, introduces Vera (ZoŽ Telford), his "niece" ostensibly to help with housework. He inveigles himself to the point where he becomes in control of Tony who becomes a drunk, isolated and dissolute.
The themes are class, power and sex. Barrett, the manservant, straddles the classes. As a servant he is intrinsically working class but in the milieu of his workplace he knows what conventions and comforts are expected by the upper class. The balance is upset when Barrett starts to control his young and feckless employer, isolating him from his friends of the same social class so that he only interacts with Barrett, has a sexual relationship with Barrett's "niece and mixes with Barrett's cronies.
In the half century since the novel was published there has been much erosion of class barriers with the rise of the meritocracy and celebrity. Attitudes towards homosexuality have changed drastically advancing more tolerance and understanding. Whether it was the dated period touches or Michael Feast's splendidly sarcastic butler, the opening night audience screamed with laughter. While this laughter led to much discussion during the interval -- with some blaming it on the audience being too knowing, having seen the film -- the first act was. thoroughly enjoyable and riveting. It also tended to keep you from noticing or caring about any degeneration. The impact of the final scene where Tony limps off to Barrett's room to enjoy a rent boy fails to shock in 2001 as it would have done half a century earlier.
Mickey Feast's performance is wonderful as the oleaginous Barrett, snake like with a strange way of cocking his head as he goes into verbal battle with "Sloane Ranger" Sally. In the final scene he is allowed to discard his butler's uniform and wear a very shiny, shantung suit. Emma Amos' Sally, in evening dress at any time of day and looking like a 1960s fashion plate, comes over intentionally weak with not enough gumption to take on Barrett and win. Jack Davenport's Tony seems self indulgent and lazy, a bon viveur more interested in his comfort than society or reputation. ZoŽ Telford appears too old to be the "under the age of consent" in her baby doll, marabou trimmed nightdress; yet she convinces in her solo scene in her career future as a working girl. There's also an admirable performance from Crispin Letts' Richard, Tony's concerned older friend,. The other characters, like Emma, are meant to be weak in opposition to Barrett's force for evil which interferes with any pity we might feel for Tony.
Rae Smith's design, an elegant, uncluttered sitting room with the stairs of the house aloft, allows Barrett to be seen, partially illuminated, on the stairs listening to Tony sobs below. The start of the second act sees the sitting room strewn with bottles and a week's worth of washing up as Tony, without Barrett, goes to pieces. Neil Bartlett's frequent lowering of the curtain and playing music cuts up the play's action too, artificially. The final scene is bland rather than nasty, leaving us with nowhere to go and a feeling of dissatisfaction after that enjoyable first act. Still, The Servant is still stimulating theatre and worthy of discussion -- even if not in the way that Maugham intended.