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Mr Maugham at Home

Anthony Curtis
New End Theatre
(2010)

Drawing of Somerset Maugham

To paraphrase Edward Lear:

How splendid to meet Mr Maugham!
Who wrote such volumes of stuff!
Some thought him snobbish and queer,
But a few found him pleasant enough.

W.Somerset Maugham, a Companion of Honour to give him his full title, was indeed a prolific novelist, playwright and short story writer. He was also the highest paid, most celebrated author of the 1930s who once described himself as “in the very first row of the second-raters.”

But his work survives in classic paperbacks, theatre revivals and fairly frequent screen and radio adaptations, while his literary novel Cakes and Ale, with its veiled portrait of Thomas Hardy, remains an acknowledged inspiration for other writers.

Those happy few who in the past enjoyed a skinny dip and a dry Martini by his palm-shaded pool at the Villa Mauresque included the Windsors, Tory nabob Boothby, Hollywood icon George Cukor and, most welcome, Noël Coward who was later to trill in a Las Vegas cabaret song about “living in error with ‘Maude’ at Cap Ferrat — which couldn’t be right.”

Now, 45 years since Maugham’s death at the age of 91, theatregoers can recapture some of the pleasures of an ‘at home’ with the man of letters, thanks to this superb first person monologue created by his biographer Michael Curtis.

It also offers a highly entertaining encounter with a born raconteur in the person of actor Anthony Smee, whose unforced impersonation seems more like the great man himself than the effete mandarin suggested by the Graham Sutherland portrait, which dominates the back wall of the stage. And he uses Maugham’s slight stammer to clever effect, adding piquancy and pause to a flow of wicked recollections and sophisticated one-liners.

Ninon Jerome’s lush staging places the action on the Villa’s flagged terrace where we discover Maugham, shortly before the fall of France in 1940, fingering a Patience deck in search of an elusive red card to complete his solitaire game. We then listen enthralled to his narrative, marked by occasional moments of interaction with ourselves as visitors, while his unseen lover Gerald Haxton interrupts by telephone — as does Churchill at one significant point.

But time and location remain fluid: returning to early days in Whitstable, the formally dressed Heidelberg student and a young Lambeth hospital intern in a white coat, valuable experience which inspired his first novel Liza of Lambeth. We also get strong hints of MI6 secret service work including a briefing from Winston that takes him on a transatlantic mission to bring the US into the war against Nazi Germany.

Social life in London and Paris, travel to the South Sea islands in search of Gauguin, and the espionage exploits which provided material for his Ashenden spy stories, also conjure up some amusing recollections.

But eventually we are faced with a fuddled 90 year old, searching angrily for mislaid letters, an incident which leads seamlessly to a well-staged death scene — a model by Curtis and Smee of how these things should be done in the theatre — while Maugham himself continues to charm us with his witty observations, including events that were to follow his demise.

The last performance at this intimate Hampstead venue is on Sunday 16th May at 3.30pm, but I feel sure that it will not be the last we shall see of this delightful one-man show.

Reviewer: John Thaxter