The Constant Wife
Review by Alan BIrd
The charming and witty comedy "The Constant Wife", written in 1927 by Somerset Maugham looks at the hypocrisy of double standards for a husband as opposed to a wife in genteel 1920's upper class society.
The story concerns Constance who is married to a general surgeon John Middleton, who is having an affair with Marie-Louise, her best friend. Her mother and sister along with her friend Barbara know of the affair and the play opens with the three of them debating whether she should be told. Constance's mother thinks not, after all men are naturally "polygamous" and it is too much to expect them to be faithful all of the time, informing Constance of the affair would only upset her and what would that achieve.
Constance and John are no longer in love, yet they remain happily married and she believes that makes her more fortunate than many women who are trapped in an unhappy marriage. However, trapped she is! Constance sees herself as the property of her husband and since he provides for her needs how can she complain if he seeks excitement elsewhere? Seeking her independence, Constance takes up an offer of employment from her friend Barbara and within a year she is financially independent of her husband. After depositing a £1000 in her husband's bank account to pay for her board and lodge for the last twelve months, she seeks some excitement of her own!!
This is a story of a sophisticated and noble woman, who after her husband's indiscretion does not seek revenge, but merely the same autonomy that her husband enjoys.
This play is exceptionally cast. Jenny Seagrove plays a strong and beguiling Constance. Linda Thorson as Mrs Culver is superb as she watches with fascination the verbal sparing taking place around her. Serena Evans plays the outraged sister Martha with barely concealed venom towards her brother-in-law. The only weak member of the cast is Steven Pacey playing Constance's husband John; his constantly flustered demeanour became irksome at times and made one wonder why the serene Constance would find him a suitable life companion.
Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife currently playing on Shaftesbury Avenue at the Apollo Theatre is an interesting, amusing and at times thought provoking play.
The piece is set in 1926, in the home of John and Constance Middleton in Harley Street. Mrs Culver, Constance’s mother, Martha, her sister, and the interior designer Barbara Fawcett call on Constance, and whilst waiting her arrival, discuss the latest gossip, the fact that John is having an affair with Constance’s best friend, Marie-Louise. Despite Martha’s belief that her sister should be told of this, her mother is more measured, asserting that it is quite natural and quite to be expected that men will not remain faithful to their wives. Of course it is certainly altogether another matter for a woman to behave likewise – a theme that returns at the end of the play. When Constance appears, conversation turns to other matters, including Barbara’s offer to Constance of a partnership in her business. This Constance refuses as her job is as a faithful wife to her hard working husband. And so the bumbling action continues, with Constance’s husband John so obviously seeking excuses to be alone, work late, be away, so that he can indulge his male ego with Constance’s best friend Marie-Louise, comfortable in the belief that his wife is none the wiser.
All this is shattered two weeks later, when a gathering at the Middletons’ home is disturbed by the explosive appearance of Mortimer Durham, who challenges his wife Marie-Louise and Middleton over his suspicion that they are having an affair. But before either can seek to defend themselves, Constance calmly intervenes, explaining that Mortimer has made a delightfully innocent step in his logic, and everything is quite easily explained. Of course, once he has left, she now reveals that she has known of her husband’s infidelities all along…
This is the turning point for Constance who then begins to assert what, at the time the play was written, would have been an extraordinarily bold display of sexual independence. Constance takes on the work offered by Barbara Fawcett and consorts with a former suitor, Bernard Kersal, until a year later she is able to repay the humiliation she received from her husband by setting off for six weeks of travels with Bernard, safe in the knowledge that she owes her husband nothing.
But oh how Maugham’s plot is let down by the acting – this production is simply so second rate, that much of the enjoyment that might be had from the piece is lost to stumbled-lines, miscasting and some dreadfully ham-fisted acting. Both Jenny Seagrove as the wronged Constance and Simon Williams as the returned lover are frightfully wooden, with Seagrove in particular looking dreadfully uncomfortable and out of place. Sara Crowe as the voluptuous Marie-Louise provides little reason for Steven Pacey’s Middleton to genuinely consider her as an object of desire, although his wincing performance perhaps excuses his decision. Within all this, there are two performances of note, from mother and daughter Culver, Linda Thorson and Serena Evans, whose timing and delivery were up to the job demanded by the script and director Edward Hall.
Maybe I was unlucky, but what I saw was little more than amateur dramatics with a slightly bigger budget.
What other critics had to say.....
DARREN DALGLISH says, "A little slow to get going but builds up to a punishing ending! Superb acting in a delightful and charming play "; NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STRANDARD says, "Thrilling denouement, with its assertion of female independence." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The play as a whole is a testament to Maugham's enduring skill as a subversive boulevard entertainer." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " There are many sharp moments in Edward Hall’s able revival ." JOHN THAXTER for THE STAGE says, "Cool, clever comedy...."MARK COOK for TIME OUT says, "Not meaty fare, certainly, but an acceptable enough morsel."
External links to full reviews from newspapers...