It’s England, 1932 – and the Ardsley family appears to be conducting their lives successfully and wholeheartedly following World War I and the Great Depression. However, appearances are deceptive, as each of them struggles to find their place in the new world.
When For Services Rendered was first performed in 1932, it only had a short run of just 78 performances, considered to be “defeatist or even subversive”. In truth, it was – and remains – a stark, at times unpalatable, commentary on the aftermath of war and humanity, not just for those who served, but also for those left at home to hold the fort and ensure that there was a life to come back to. What Maugham’s writing captures, reflected in the performances here by Chesil Theatre, is the bare essence of human nature and frailty, the need to love and be loved in return, the power dynamics within relationships and the essential need to belong and have a meaningful role in society; whether you agree or not with the political (politically correct) statements spoken by the characters, the language may have changed since Maugham wrote his observational commentary, but attitudes and certain aspects of human nature have not. Arguably, neither have the struggles that servicemen (and now servicewomen) may face as they adjust to life back in civvy-street following years of service in the armed forces, whether they serve through career choice, a sense of duty and calling, or are seemly conscripted.
The scenery gives a good representation of the peace of a post-war English garden, although would benefit from more attention to detail with finishing touches, despite the good array of props; however, the sound effects are superb, continuing through the beginning of the scenes, complimenting the narrative, establishing the summery outdoor setting, before gradually fading out to silence.
The small venue of Chesil Theatre is always going to provide an intimate, sometimes claustrophobic, atmosphere, but the decision to have the performance area as a ‘thrust stage’ with seating on three sides ensures that the audience gets a real ‘fly on the wall’ perspective, akin to neighbours observing and overhearing the action and interpersonal interaction of the main protagonists over the garden fence. On the plus side, the close proximity draws the audience into the lives of the characters with a deep intensity; the counterbalance to that is that some parts of the action are difficult to see (although you could go to more than one performance, sit on a different side of the stage, and experience an entirely different perspective!).
It also means that the audience is so close to the actors that there is nowhere for them to hide and it is possible for nerves to take hold of them. Although there were a few stumbles and mis-called names on the opening night, it is of credit to the actors that this is not the case; it is essentially well-paced, with the performance area encouraging the actors to relate naturally to each other, rather than with more affected stances with an audience to the front of the stage as can sometimes be the case.
Sam Burridge gives an excellent physical performance as Sydney, the son who lost his sight during battle, giving a faultless portrayal of a blindman dependent on the guidance of others and the use of his stick to get around, his eyes looking but never seeing as he interacts with members of his family and other visitors, feeling his way around the garden setting and actively listening to what is happening.
Mary Mitchell and David Baldwin are impressively convincing as his parents, the stoic and determined Charlotte Ardsely and her totally oblivious, officious solicitor husband, Leonard. There is also a delightful squabbling but loving relationship between Charlotte and her brother, Dr Prentice (Malcolm Brown), and Norma York gives a strong performance as feisty yet vulnerable Gwen Cedar.
Jim Glaister commands the stage area as the hard-drinking, philandering farmer, Howard Bartlett, who longs to return to his perceived rightful place as an “officer and a gentleman” in the navy. It is a fine line between portraying a drunken bully, restrained and contained, rather than becoming an exaggerated caricature, but Glaister captures this perfectly. The emotional turmoil that Lois Ardsley (Katy Watkins) goes through as she plays the men in her life at their own game is compelling, but the heart-breaking agony and anguish of her sister, Eva (Karen Fitzsimmons), as her mental wellbeing unravels is palpable and haunting.
If you are looking for an evening of ‘fluffy’, lightweight entertainment, this may not be for you – but if you want to experience an evening of profound and reflective, provocative and challenging theatre, then you will not be disappointed.
Runs from 15 – 22 September (not Sunday): 7:45pm nightly, 2:30pm matinée on 22 September, with an after-show Talkback on Tuesday 18 September.