The appalling suffering endured by soldiers in WWI has been powerfully depicted many times in drama. But W. Somerset Maugham’s ironically titled 1932 play For Services Rendered focuses on the war’s long-term pernicious impact on the domestic front. Fourteen years after the armistice, a lingering shadow darkens the lives of a country solicitor’s family – who it is implied are representative of thousands of others – in a land that is far from being fit for heroes.
The main focus is on the three Ardsley sisters. The eldest Eva lost her fiancé in the war and spends most of her time looking after her blinded veteran brother Sydney, while unrequitedly loving an ex-destroyer captain turned small businessman who is on the verge of bankruptcy after failing to adjust to civilian life. Ethel has married ‘beneath’ her to a drunken local tenant farmer, overloaded with work and children. And 25-year-old Lois, frustrated at the lack of eligible young men around, is tempted by an affair with a wealthy, middle-aged married man. Mr Ardsley is disappointed that his son can’t follow into the family business, while his wife has stress-related health problems.
The play starts off like a middle-class drawing-room comedy, with people entering through French windows for tea after playing tennis, but Maugham’s quietly devastating drama of blighted lives gradually reveals a potent bitter anger conveying post-war disillusion. There is a distinctly Chekhovian feel to the frustrated hopes of the three sisters, while the play’s understated expression of private turmoil may well have influenced Rattigan. The plot creaks here and there, and sometimes the dialogue is a bit stilted, but Maugham’s sensitive portrayal of particularly female sensibility and sexuality – unusual for its time – is impressive, as is his exposure of the hypocrisy of warmongers who demand pointless sacrifice for the country.
Once again Howard Davies directs a large cast with assurance to deliver nuanced ensemble performances, while William Dudley’s striking design features the comfortable conservatory of a country house with a backdrop of pretty pastoral haystacks surrounded by barbed wire in a Paul Nash-like reference to the killing fields of the Western Front.
Justine Mitchell’s painfully moving performance as the emotionally fragile Eva lies at the heart of the play, while Yolanda Kettle’s trapped, sensual Lois and Jo Herbert’s wearily dowdy Ethel also impress. There is good support from Nick Fletcher as the former career naval officer out of his depth in peacetime, Anthony Calf as a smug playboy who profited in the post-war slump and Sam Callis as a boorish, small-time farmer who reflects on his soldiering years with nostalgia for the status his uniform gave him. Simon Chandler’s Mr Ardsley lives in a deluded world of conventional platitudes while Stella Gonet’s Mrs Ardsley suffers stoically. And Joseph Kloska’s embittered, sardonic Sydney resembles a sightless prophet when he predicts ‘they’ll muddle us all into another war’, as he rails ‘it’s all bunk what they’re saying to you, about honour and patriotism and glory, bunk, bunk’.