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A CurtainUp London Review
The barber's shop is owned by Mr Bradley (Geff Francis) and his top barber is Sheppey (John Ramm), nicknamed for his place of birth, the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary. Sheppey is especially skilled at selling the expensive bottles of hair tonic said to restore hair. His reverse psychology sales technique is to pretend that he wouldn't want to sell it to his customer but to list off the reviews from other people, which whets his customers' imagination.
The director is very skilled at getting his players moving with fluidity so we are never conscious of any blocking. The pretty blonde manicurist Miss Gray (Katie Moore), a typical Selfridges' girl of the 1930s era, looks after the clients' hands and nails in a mildly flirtatious way. Round the balcony of this delightful theatre, which has the audience on all four sides, are advertising banners, some featuring hairdressing products, some about horse racing and the Irish Sweepstake.
The other female interest in this first scene is Bessie Legros (Dickie Beau), who having fallen on hard times, is earning her living in nearby Leicester Square, the centre of London's red light district. "It's the slump wot done it!" says Bessie on the loss of her previous job. Bessie is a sometime drinking partner of Sheppey's after his shop has shut and the actor playing her exudes an uneasy sense of mystery which I shall return to later.
The play has three acts with two intervals. At the end of the first act we hear that Sheppey has won the Irish Sweepstake from phone calls to the shop from his wife and the arrival of a journalist to write the story. Sadly, such is inflation that we are a little non-plussed by the amount he has won which must have been fabulous and life changing then.
A quick scene change takes us to Sheppey's living room with an interesting carpet featuring the brain mapping phrenology of a man's head. Here Sheppey's daughter Florrie (Katie Moore) who is a tad pretentious and has ideas above her station, is planning to marry schoolteacher Ernie (Josh Dylan).
Sheppey's tolerant wife, Mrs Miller (Sarah Ball), Sheppey's real name is Miller, is less questioning of her husband's decision but when Sheppey announces that he intends to give away the money, there is a cacophony of protest from Florrie and Ernie. But just giving the money away is not enough for the Messianic Sheppey, he brings into the Miller family home, Bessie and Cooper (Tom Peters) a local recidivist.
Act Three sees Bessie giving many words of wisdom to the incensed Florrie but Florrie is really annoying with her self righteous attitude. Ernie is horribly pompous and these two are clearly the most dislikeable characters in the play and well suited to each other. Ernie likens his future father-in-law's behaviour to Jesus. The family's reaction is to attempt to get Sheppey sectioned, or involuntarily committed, to an asylum. Somerset Maugham has a surprise ending which I will not spoil here.
I was really taken by Dickie Beau's amazing performance in both parts. An actor and drag artist Beau has a riveting stage presence and I found his otherness very refreshing. He brings a spirituality, what the French call spirituelle, an unknown quality to both these parts which enhances the play's outcome. John Ramm too gives a solid performance and I can't fault any of the supporting actors.
Somerset Maugham wrote no more plays after this one. It may not be Somerset Maugham's best work but these rare period revivals in the hands of Paul Miller and the Orange Tree are, for me, unmissable.
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Written by W Somerset Maugham
Directed by Paul Miller
Starring: Geff Francis, John Ramm, Dickie Beau
With: Josh Dylan, Tom Peters, Katie Moore, Brendan Hooper, Sarah Ball
Designed by Simon Daw
Sound Design and Composer: Max Pappenheim
Lighting Design: Elliot Griggs
Fight Co-ordinator: Bret Yount
Running time: Two hours 55 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking to 7th January 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th November 2016 performance at the Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA (Rail/Tube Richmond)
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