For Services Rendered

Minerva Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, Friday, July 31, to Saturday, September 5

IN the novel Coming Up For Air - penned and set in the months before the Second World War - George Orwell’s protagonist George Bowling admits it’s not the prospect of the inevitable conflict which frightens him, but its aftermath.

And it’s the aftermath of the so-called Great War which is at the heart of W Somerset Maugham’s 1932 play For Services Rendered – which examines a family torn apart both by the war and the social and economic upheavals which followed it.

Director Howard Davies was first encouraged to read the play by a colleague at the National Theatre more than three years ago, but he admits his prejudice towards Somerset Maugham made him put it aside for at least two months.

“I didn’t think Somerset Maugham was my sort of thing,” he admits now. “He belonged to that world when theatre was light entertainment, and people regarded George Bernard Shaw as a boring old prothelytiser.

“When I told the literary manager at the National Theatre I’d not read it he said I was making a terrible mistake. I was very piqued by that response.”

Davies finally picked up the play and discovered a “sharp, well-observed and considerably modern play” – which had been something of a flop on its initial run.

“People didn’t want to hear about the war,” says Davies. “In the 1920s people wanted to move on – alcohol, parties and cocaine became popular as people wanted to forget.

“I did a play last year at the National Theatre to mark the centenary of the First World War – Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie [from 1928], which was critical of the war. When he first submitted it to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin they didn’t want it. That response made him leave Ireland and come to England. I think in the 1930s with this play there was a similar reaction.”

Davies says perhaps the most shocking element of For Services Rendered is the daughter who decides to sell herself for money to a much older man, rather than stay in that same stifling world.

“She is taking a huge risk with her safety and her life, but she feels her freedom is more important than anything they call morality,” says Davies.

“The play is full of extraordinary characters, especially extraordinary women. They are fantastically drawn. Somerset Maugham wrote from his own observation – he had a terrible stutter so was socially quite shy. He became an incredible listener, writing notebooks full of stories people told him. He wrote from real life that he had observed rather than his imagination.

“With some contemporary playwrights if you took away the names of the characters in the play you wouldn’t know who was talking – it would be like a prose monologue. In this these characters come alive. From the first week of rehearsals we were saying: ‘Wow, listen to that voice’.”

When it came to casting the play Davies wanted to create a strong ensemble. The distinguished cast includes Stella Gonet of The House Of Eliott fame, rising stage star Jo Herbert, Chichester regular Anthony Calf, The Bill’s Sam Callis, former EastEnder Matilda Ziegler, stage and screen regular Simon Chandler, and star of Royal Court hit Birdland Yolanda Kettle.

“I pride myself on finding a good ensemble,” says Davies. “It’s about people who work together well. It’s like constructing a DNA molecule. I generally cast one person, and from there I know how to cast the next person.

“I always go one-by-one rather than casting ten parts at once. That way you know where the actors’ strengths are and can work out what the play needs. It’s a thoroughly rewarding process.”

Although penned seven years before the beginning of the Second World War Somerset Maugham’s play has a sobering warning for the future.

“Near the end one of the characters who was blinded in the First World War lets go with his anger and frustration that all he fought for and believed in was total rubbish,” says Davies.

“He says we were led into this calamitous event, and unless people are careful and learn from the war, rather than treating it with a degree of reverence and nostalgia, then there will be another one.

“Somerset Maugham was writing in 1932, just after the Wall Street Crash in the US, and the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany – it’s incredibly prescient.”

Starts 7.45pm, 2.45pm matinees, tickets from £20. Call 01243 781312.