IN BRIEF Searing anti-war play’s outrage retains its power in a solid production

What could be more idyllic? An English country garden on a warm Autumn afternoon with apples dropping from the trees around, tea on the terrace with friends and family. So what’s wrong with this picture? In Somerset Maugham’s searing and furious 1932 anti-war play, it is the people.  

One family and their acquaintances try to cope with the devastation of their lives and dislocated social mores – the complex, bitter legacies that World War One has created.

Himself a Red Cross medical officer from 1916, this is Maugham’s heartfelt tribute to those millions who enlisted with patriotism in their hearts, little thinking that their country’s “undying gratitude” would have such a terrifyingly short expiry date. As the title suggests, their heroism was shamefully reduced to the level of a simple transaction by inept governments.

These forgotten men of World War One, discharged without proper support or rehabilitation – “shattered” men, who were sacrificed to maintain England’s cosy self-image, now shattered itself. The hypocrisy and denial in the treatment of those who risked everything for their country, later being criminalised for a simple lack of support is shocking even today.

FOR SERVICES RENDERED concerns three sisters’ attempts to make a future in a time when a whole generation of young men were crippled or, simply, missing. Maugham’s play shows that war’s scars are often invisible but no less life-changing. Eva, who lost her loved one in the War, leading an emaciated life, slides slowly into despair and madness. Ethel, who married a hard-drinking tenant-farmer, is resigned to her lot, acknowledging that breaking class barriers as she did has had its consequences for them both. Bored young Lois, much younger than the other two, has learnt from their sorry outcomes and is determined to grab life despite the costs to those around her, savouring the power of flirting with an infatuated married man at the expense of his wife. A suicide sets off a chain of events causing what remains of the genteel facades to disintegrate before us.

The three ex-servicemen – one blinded in the war, one a farmer, the other a garage owner, are ill-suited to a civilian life and this takes its toll upon them all as they fight their own internal wars.

The older generation do not get off lightly, either, from the stoic Mother whose imminent death appeals as a release (“I’m pre-War”), to the blithely unaware Father, ironically broadcasting his own utterly blind reading of the family situation in a smug coda; and to the infatuated visitor who can afford hundreds for a pretty girl’s necklace but not to help a struggling ex-serviceman survive.

The final moments, as the National Anthem is sung as a sombre, empty gesture, are deeply chilling and unsettling. No wonder, I suppose, that contemporary audiences shunned it and it closed after just 78 performances.

Tom Littler’s intelligent production works well to illustrate the inequalities of the time. Rachel Pickup conveys Eva’s fragility and decline in a quiet, sincere manner. Diane Fletcher acutely shows us the dignified but tested Mother, “out of time” with herself and the world. The detailed sound design by Yvonne Gilbert works very well too. In all, a very worthwhile revival.

FOR SERVICES RENDERED plays at Jermyn Street Theatre until 5 October. Details and tickets here

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