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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Breadwinner

When a woman leaves her husband, they say it's because he's a brute. When a man leaves his wife, they say it's because she couldn't hold him. — Margery
The Breadwinner
Ian Targett as Charles Battle and Mark Frost as Alfred Granger (Photo: Robert Day)
Set in 1930 and in three acts, Somerset Maugham's play The Breadwinner starts with the younger generation. Four for tennis, two boys and two girls around 18, introduce us to their neighbouring families.

Patrick Battle (Joseph Radcliffe) and his sister Judy (Nathalie Buscombe) are hosting Timothy Granger (Jeremy Lloyd) and his sister Diana (Sarah Schoenbeck). Their behaviour is quite shocking as they deride the older generation, mock those that participated in the First World War and can't wait to get their hands on their parents' money. They are a grasping, greedy lot and arrogant to boot.

Their mothers, Dorothy (Isla Carter) and Margery (Cate Debenham-Taylor), talk about flirtations with men other than their husbands. When Dorothy's husband, Alfred (Mark Frost), a city solicitor enters, it is to report that Margery's husband, Charlie (Ian Targett) is missing and that Tommy Avon, a city financier shot himself last week.

When at the beginning of Act Two, Charlie enters we feel a sense of relief that at last there is a character we can warm to. Charlie is a stockbroker, a trader and there is a description of the process of being "hammered", how someone who cannot meet their debts is announced to the London Stock Exchange.

As Charlie explains to his family that they are broke, Margery asks him about her proposed summer holiday to the South of France and the children say that they suppose it means they can't afford to convert the grass tennis court into a hard court. In a strong scene, Alfred and Charlie alone discuss the situation. It becomes apparent that although there were people prepared to fund Charlie's outstanding obligations, he has in fact chosen to walk away from his job and his family. Alfred's reaction is, "Whoever heard of a man leading his own life?"

In Act Three the women speculate on what will happen and, in a bizarre move, vampish Dorothy explains to Charlie that he is obviously leaving because he is desperately in love with her. This has not a vestige of truth. Later Alfred's daughter Diana explains that she is in love with Charlie and wants to come away with him.

Many of his plays and novels reflect Somerset Maugham's unhappy eleven year marriage to Syrie Wellcome. Even The Moon and Sixpence, the novel about Paul Gauguin,has similarities in the painter's escape from family life to the South Seas, and we remember that Gauguin had an earlier career as a banker.

The audience in 1930 would surely have been shocked by the conversation the younger generation have about the idea that 40 year olds should be put to death as having outlived their useful life. Today's audience laughed at the outrageous remarks of the tennis racket wielding generation. In fact Charlie is not leaving his family penniless, but hiding £20,000 of overseas stocks from his creditors and giving three quarters of it to his family.

What flaws the play is the terribly selfish behaviour of the children and women which makes them caricature so that we do not sympathise with their predicament but think only that they are getting their just deserts. The Orange Tree revives these rare plays very well in an intimate setting with the audience on four sides. The two men take the acting credits for me: Mark Frost's lecherous, womanising solicitor and Ian Targett's rebellious Charlie who seems a lot more interesting than anyone gives him credit for.

Auriol Smith's direction copes well with the in the round playing area and Sam Dowson's designs match the period. The pauses recommended in the original here instead have two shortish intervals which extend the playing time.

Maugham was coming to the end of his playwriting career; this was his third last play although he lived for another 35 years. At one point he had four plays running simultaneously in London and a cartoon of the day had William Shakespeare looking enviously at posters of Maugham's plays.

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The Breadwinner
by William Somerset Maugham
Directed by Auriol Smith

Starring: Ian Targett, Cate Debenham-Taylor, Nathalie Buscombe, Joseph Ratcliffe, Mark Frost, Isla Carter, Sarah Schoenbeck, Jeremy Lloyd
Designed by Sam Dowson
Lighting: John Harris
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with two short intervals
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking to 18th May 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th April 2013 performance at the Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA (Rail/Tube: Richmond)

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