The Servant - Review

by Robin Maugham
Directed by Ken Potter

The Servant is a nasty story, told slowly in this production and there’s the rub.

The performances are first-rate. But since the flow of the action is broken by painstakingly careful scene changes, the actors lose a lot of the suspense they work so successfully to achieve. The narrative is often concerned with sexual tension, so it’s like watching momentum interruptus.

All the casting is spot on.

From the word go, Colin Elmer, the unspeakable Barrett, the servant, is nastiness personified. Colin has the ability to make you believe he has just stepped out of a fridge. A sign reading “Grandma for Sale” might as well be hanging over his head. As he progresses from glacial to near-hysterical by way of drunken false penitence, he offers a performance which makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. Great !

Fifty years on from when the play was written, social drama is no longer presented in such big black capital letters. The world Maugham wrote about has gone. Few people can afford (or need) a Jeeves. It is to Matthew Houghton’s credit as the victimised employer, that he makes us believe what is happening to him, close to melodrama though it is.

His self-destruction, a cheerfully-maintained insouciance defeated by a great deal of whisky, is heart-breaking. Matthew’s performance is impressively sustained, though you wonder why people walk all over him so easily.

His concerned friends, Arabella Gibbins and Terence Drew, who try to rescue him, have considerable style. Arabella is glamorous, haughty, full of common sense; Terence, practical and down to earth, knowing when to accept the inevitable.

Sarah Charsley and Sarah Deeas are the imported low life. They are involved in the only moments where there might be a chance to draw breath and laugh. Both are excellently cast.

Comparing the play with the later movie version (Losey, Pinter and Bogarde) is irresistible. To some extent, Maugham was restricted in what he could get away with by state censorship (the Lord Chamberlain’s office.) The film censors allowed a more subtle journey into depravity. This had the effect of smoothing out some rough edges.

It is not a comfortable evening for the audience, any more than it can be for the actors, because I can’t help but feel that the staging gets in the way of what they are doing. The sets look good – it is moving them around too often that upsets the applecart. The accompanying gloomy music on a loop doesn’t help.

I don’t believe we need to see Barrett at the beginning, spot-lit in a menacing hat, looking as if An Inspector is about To Call. He needs a trailer no more than the audience needs to be told in advance that something nasty is about to happen. Time after time.

Actors: 10; production 8+

Reviewed by Barry Hewlett-Davies