Sheppey is Somerset Maugham’s last play. After it opened at Wyndham’s in 1933, Maugham announced he would never write for theatre again. There’s a twilight feel to the piece. Death creeps around the scene-edges. Ideas about legacy linger and big, heavy ‘end of life’ questions – what is it to be good and is it possible to live by one’s ideals – pull at the seams of the writing.
Yet, as is the case with so many last plays, Sheppey is not a brilliant piece of theatre. The structure is shaky. The tone slides all over the place (are we going for arch comedy or something more off-beat and sinister?) and many of the scenes are horribly flabby. The dramatic motor never gets going; it’s as if the play is revving up for a journey that the playwright repeatedly fails, or forgets, to take.
But there is something about Sheppey; lines or snatched moments that shimmer with all sorts of strange qualities and truths. These instances, rare as they are, could only have been formulated at the end of a brilliant career, after years of careful thought and smouldering concerns.
The play is set in London in the 1930s. The Great Depression feels like a weighty presence. Sheppey (John Ramm) is a hairdresser at a local salon and – for the most part – his is a world untouched by the depression. The customers lie back on their chairs and ‘thoughtfully’ sigh: ‘Everyone knows there’s a lot of poverty in this world, but it can’t be helped, like influenza or a run of bad luck at cards.’
But when Sheppey’s luck changes – and he wins big on the lottery – he resolves to do something about the poverty that swarms the streets around him. In short, Sheppey decides to live like Jesus. He throws his house open to the unwashed masses and isn’t long before a ‘lady of the night’ (a brilliantly slippery Dickie Beau) and a common crook are sleeping cheek by jowl with Sheppey’s seriously miffed family.
It’s one heck of a sparky premise – but the play never sets alight. Director Paul Miller and his sensitive cast do a fine and nuanced job (it’s the play at fault and not this production). Simon Daw’s set, too, is pleasingly odd. Advertising boards enshroud the stage and – in the corner – sits a shelf packed full of glowing hair dye bottles. The stage space feels polished, cold and a little unreal; it’s an arena that glows with empty promises.
There are, however, some fundamental dramatic issues with this play that no amount of artful tweaking can overcome. Maugham never fully commits to his ideas, his characters, and the internal energy of his writing. He also never fixes on the type of emotional connection he’s aiming for with his audience. Sheppey’s customers and colleagues are laughably pompous. Their snooty comments, rinsed of compassion, edge Sheppey into the realms of satire. Sheppey’s family is equally arch and artificial. His daughter Florrie (Katie Moore) is cartoonishly callous and her fiancé, Ernie (Josh Dylan), amusingly pretentious. None of their scenes feel real.
Yet some of the quieter moments in Sheppey – particularly when he talks with Dickie Beau’s agonisingly enigmatic prostitute Bessie Legros – are intimate, textured and true. John Ramm fascinates as the title characters. He has a smile that spreads – very slowly – over his entire face. It’s as if Sheppey’s goodness is swallowing him whole; an acid that is reducing him to nothing. He is a very real character in the middle of an unreal play. The suspicion and anger that Sheppey provokes when he attempts to do good is a very sad and revealing thing. In the play’s best moment, Sheppey sits in a chair that threatens to engulf him and cries out: ‘It’s the pain of the world that gets me.’ And, just for a second, we sit and cry out with him.
Sheppey is on at the Orange Tree Theatre until 7th January 2017. Click here for more details.