The Breadwinner – Orange Tree Theatre, London – review by Carole Woddis.

Somerset Maugham is probably a name that means little to today’s generation.  Yet, like Terence Rattigan, he was one of Britain’s most popular and leading playwrights.  Between 1907-09 he had four plays running in the West End.  By the time he stopped writing plays, in 1930, he had written 27 original and three adaptations.

Today, Maugham’s stage work is largely ignored and anticipation of a production might commonly be expected to register little more than a dull thud of indifference.  How wrong one would be.

The ever vigilant Orange Tree have now unearthed one of his later successes, The Breadwinner (1930) and though it opens with a quartet of spoilt upper class twits prattling on about allowances, family firms and `going up to Oxford’ in accents that make the heart sink, there’s a clever ruse at hand that will explode any preconceptions sky high.

For The Breadwinner turns out to be a shatteringly sharp satire, on amongst other things, the young who believe you’re well past it by 40.  Sounding remarkably prescient and in tune with certain blue-sky thinkers now, the 17 year old school-leaver Patrick suggests `a well regulated state would put people out of their misery at 40.  They’re such a burden to everyone’.

Maugham goes on to give a roasting to Patrick and his companions in a play whose first two acts zing with a ferocity that sometimes borders on the surreal as one by one normal conventions are over-turned.

Primary amongst them is the idea of men as breadwinners.  Maugham was no feminist.  Quite the contrary but he makes a fantastic case for life to be lived according to the inner call of personal development rather than conforming slavishly to duty and self sacrifice be they in humdrum nine-to-five jobs or as in the case here, Patrick’s father Charles Battle, a well known and highly successful stockbroker who one day decides to jack it all in when he suffers a temporary financial embarrassment.

As directed here by Auriol Smith with a fine eye to Maugham’s savagery, The Breadwinner, beautifully played as usual at the Orange Tree by a hand picked cast emerges as deeply subversive and as relevant as anything you’ll find at the Royal Court in Charles Battle’s description of stock exchange mayhem and in his riposte to his son’s boredom with the old, his own confession of how tedious the young can be for the older generation.

Unfortunately, the third act goes into overdrive but even so, such is Maugham’s command and wit in the first two acts that as inter-generational, anti-materialistic social comedies go, this must rank way up there with the best of them.

To May 18

Carole Woddis © May 2, 2013

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