There can be a risk that period pieces wrenched from their context lose their power. That isn’t the case with W Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered.
First performed in 1932 the Norwich Player’s current production of it still stings with satire, as it depicts the Ardsley family’s attempts to deal with the spectre of the Great War.
Becky Sweet’s Charlotte Ardsley is the maternal backbone of the family; hers is a gentle and masterful performance, marbled with kindness, resignation, and wisdom. Trevor Burton plays her invalid son Sydney, blinded in the war but more aware of what is going on than most around him, with equal accomplishment.
Daughter and defacto nurse Eva Ardsley is portrayed with warmth and depth by Harriet Waterhouse, who deftly and subtly portrays her gradual mental decline.
Youngest sister Lois is given just the right balance of innocence and experience by Deryn Andrews; a particular poise or upwards glance enough to project her naive confidence as she is subjected to the adulterous affections of elderly rake Wilfred (made a suitably skin-crawling letch by Jim Howard) and her commoner brother-in-law Howard (a slightly too refined Dylan Baldwin; his clothes far too clean and well-pressed for a working farmer).
There were mixed performances from the remainder of the ensemble cast, with Alexandra Evans’ Gwen the strongest; while her hysterics made for a fun comic performance, they felt somewhat isolated within Pip Session’s otherwise button-downed direction.
Lucinda Bray’s detailed set manages to be both literal and suggestive and succeeds at both, and David Shackleton’s lighting design is brilliantly parsimonious – there is no fuss, just exactly what’s needed.
This is a difficult, dark, and bleakly funny play, made all the more powerful by its prophetic hints at more war to come. We may have moved on from some of our class prejudices and ditched the idea that to wed is a woman’s only destiny, but we still struggle to make sense of the world around us and our place in it, still rail at the incompetence or indifference of our ‘betters’ – and this play still packs a punch.