It begins with the distant thwack of tennis racquets and the tinkling of teacups. But Somerset Maugham’s play, first performed in 1932, doesn’t present the cosy vision of England these things might suggest.
Set in the home of the well-to-do Ardsley family in Kent, the story focuses on the disappointments and frustrations of the Ardsley parents, their grown-up children and assorted friends who are dealing with the physical, emotional and economic fallout from World War One.
Tom Littler’s production puts a big cast on a small stage. Among them are Sydney (Richard Keightley), the Ardsleys’ son, scarred and blinded in action, and his sisters Eva (Rachel Pickup), grieving for the lover she lost in the war, Ethel (Leah Whitaker), who has married below her class to an alcoholic farmer, and the flighty Lois (Sally Cheng), desperate to escape her suffocating village life.
It’s all very Chekhovian, but with fewer laughs.
One of the play’s most affecting plotlines involves family friend Collie Stratton (Jotham Annan), an ex-navy commander who runs a garage but desperately needs a loan to keep himself financially afloat.
The opening act – which sets all this up – is very engaging, but things go awry after the interval when the obtrusive sound design for the wind and rain outside the Ardsley house becomes a distraction. There’s also an interlude when the men in the cast are plunged into silhouette and strip the garden set of its paper roses. It’s clearly meant to be symbolic, but it felt at odds with the rest of the play.
These niggles apart, there’s a wonderfully dignified performance from Diane Fletcher as the Ardsley family matriarch Charlotte. Pickup is superb as her emotionally-scarred daughter Eva, as is Viss Elliott Safavi as Gwen Cedar, who desperately clings onto her marriage to wealthy Wilfred (Michael Lumsden), even though he has professed his love for Lois.
Cheng is outstanding as Lois, a glowing portrait of self-assured youth. “Romance doesn’t last,” she says with cynicism beyond her years. “All that is left is dust and ashes.”
There’s a beautifully acted scene between her and Wilfred when he demands a kiss and she mischievously chomps on an apple.
Finally, a shout out to Gertrude – the Ardsleys’ hard-working maid. Aoife Kennan, in her professional theatre debut, makes her character an engaging and calming presence amidst all that family angst. Oh – the stories she could tell!
For Services Rendered is at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, until 5 October