Written in 1929, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Sacred Flame – like so many of his plays – was incredibly popular in its day but is now rarely revived. Matthew Dunster’s production for English Touring Theatre makes a good case for this one to be seen more often. It’s a well-crafted piece: intelligent, funny and engaging.
Maurice Tabret, war hero and test pilot, has been paralysed and left bed bound after a plane crash. He is cared for by his seemingly devoted wife, Stella, his dashing younger brother, Colin, and his loving mother with the help of various friends and doctors.
Maugham’s play is a strange if compelling mix of murder mystery and moral study. It explores love in all its forms, both requited and unrequited, as well as the complex emotional bond between mother and son. Maurice is desperate that Stella should continue to enjoy her life despite his injuries but, in pushing her away, he drives her further and further towards his brother and the pair fall madly in love.
As Maurice, Jamie De Courcey gives an excellent performance, with only the faintest quiver of the lip hinting at his well-hidden emotional trauma, while Margot Leicester is completely mesmerising as his mother, her stage presence captivating. Sarah Churm and Robert Demeger – as Maurice’s live-in nurse and prickly family friend, Major Liconda, respectively – both convey the pain of love curtailed by circumstance: the nurse for her patient and the Major for Mrs Tabret.
While the performances throughout are superb, there were moments when Dunster’s positioning of the characters on stage struck an odd cord; so often they felt removed and remote from one another, their actions artificial and out of keeping with the emotions being expressed. Characters hold intimate conversations while standing at opposite ends of the stage and there are lengthy interludes during which stage hands arrange both the props and the performers. This physical rigidity was a recurring issue, the characters negotiating the stage like chess pieces being moved by an invisible hand. This was perhaps intentional as chess is used as a metaphor throughout the piece.
At the end of the first act, the play mutates into a murder mystery, with the nurse and the Major turning detective as the emotional revelations are rolled out. The question of mercy killing, the compassionate ending of a man’s considerable emotional and physical pain, becomes central to the piece. Despite the subject matter, Maugham still finds room for humour – especially in a scene where the nurse is obliged to outline just how difficult it would be for her paralysed patient to administer the fatal overdose himself. The finger of blame is pointed at every character in turn and Leicester is gifted with a moving final monologue in which she talks about the strength of her love for her son. It’s a potent climax to an engaging and well-acted production, one that remains engrossing in spite of some, at times, heavy-handed direction.