|The Breadwinner - At The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
A 1930s mid-life crisis that the hippie generation will sympathise with, writes Liz Vercoe
Hard on the heels of GB Stern’s 1932 The Man Who Pays the Piper at the Orange Tree comes her pal Somerset Maugham’s thoroughly enjoyable take on the draining effect of being trapped into being a family’s breadwinner.
Maugham’s version, written and set in 1930, opens on the affluent home of City stockbroker Charles Battle. Here we are introduced to a bunch of spoilt and arrogant, but otherwise perfectly well mannered, 18 year olds who see their parents as sort of pre-technology cash machines: ever flush with money but with an annoying habit of changing the PIN number to prevent constant withdrawals. Cue knowing, if nervous, laughter from the audience.
Joseph Radcliffe is superbly irritating as Charles’ son Patrick Battle, a wannabe hooray Henry who plans to join and conquer the Labour Party because those working tikes “need people like us”. And the theme of their conversation is that parental dinosaurs should be put out of their misery because they are so boring and only get in the way.
Next we meet their two mothers, Margery Battle played by Cate Debenham-Taylor and her friend Dorothy Granger played by Isla Carter. These two perfectly pleasant women have forged contented, well-heeled lives alongside husbands about whom they give little real thought. A taker-up of artistic “causes”, Margery is particularly self-satisfied. She had made a set of assumptions about her man – dull but reliable – two decades earlier, so why change them?
Into this, more La La than Shangri–la, scenario Somerset Maugham lobs the intriguing grenade of what happens when a man glimpses an opportunity to live in a way that’s true to himself rather than just dutiful drudgery to a family that doesn’t care; when saving his soul becomes more important than what society thinks.
Enter Charles Battle, about to do a runner. Actor Ian Targett perfectly imbues 42-year-old Charles with an inner fire that’s desperately attempting to melt those emotionally torturing values of stiff upper lip, sang froid, icy resolve and a ramrod spine. Was his life spared in the Great War, he questions, simply to wear top hat and tails every day making money out of other people’s gambling habits on the stockmarket? He certainly says to his children what many parents secretly think, going by the near cheers from the stalls.
But despite this striking performance it’s remarkable that Maugham’s play still pulls it off so enjoyably today when “communication” is apparently all, and there are so many “life balancing” diversions available outside earning an income. None of these characters are monsters, the teenagers are just young and the wives’ horizons narrow through little fault of their own. So Charles should come across as weird and sociopathically self-centred. But he doesn’t. The reason is that it works is probably that Maugham was speaking from the heart.
Hiding his own homosexual feelings, illegal at the time, he knew what it was to feel stifled in a marriage and to feel those supposedly closest to him were strangers. A clue is that his Charles Battle is not running off with another woman and is even challenged in a cleverly (and suitably for 1930) ambiguous way whether there is “a reason” he doesn’t want a mistress. But that moment passed, Charles also speaks for every empty soul for whom money has been the driving force in life.
Maugham also knew that in the most communicative relationships people still don’t always say what they mean because they might not know themselves. Entire lives can be, and currently increasingly are, lived on the surface where things matter more than feelings.
As wife Margery explains, she doesn’t know what she feels because Charles hasn’t given her enough time to plan an appropriate response. Only in the tragic closing line do you discover Charles has actually forced a true feeling to surface, which she barely recognises.
The Breadwinner runs until 18 May. Running time 2 hours 30 minutes with two intervals.
For tickets, call the Box Office on 020 8940 3633 or www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk