Monday, 28 November 2016
by Somerset Maugham
It seems Charlie Chaplin's barber in 1940 movie The Great Dictator was at least third, possibly fourth in line, in introducing a barber with a revolutionary streak. His own brother Sydney before that had created a barber who takes on an oppressive regime. And Charlie Chaplin himself settled out of court with a writer who claimed plagiarism.
But in 1933 Somerset Maugham wrote his last play bringing to the stage Sheppey (John Ramm in this production, while originally, some would say, miscast with Ralph Richardson directed by John Gielgud). Sheppey's a Camberwell barber in this deceptively gentle piece with a razor sharp subtext.
Sheppey's only vice, apart from the more than occasional drink in a neighbouring pub, is buying a ticket produced by printers for the Free Irish State-government-sanctioned Irish Sweepstakes.
Although not spelt out in the play, this was ostensibly raising money for Irish hospitals but was eventually exposed as often lining private pockets.The sweepstake was illegal in Britain and the United States but the authorities turned a blind eye, even so far as allowing the results to appear in newspapers.
Well, Sheppey has one more barber shop vice, although some would call it a commercial virtue, persuading customers to buy a German hair restorer, sold at the Jermyn Street premises of his boss (Geff Francis) where he dreams of one day becoming a partner. Promising a medical miracle, he's got a neat line in salesman patter to persuade gullible hair-challenged clients to part with their cash.
His other modest ambition is to lodge his family in a cottage on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. A happy-go-lucky long-term employee, he nevertheless finds himself troubled when asked to be a witness in a Police Court case where he suddenly develops a social conscience, believing the assortment of criminals he sees in the dock being victims of circumstance during an economic slump rather than villains.
When his Irish Sweepstakes' ticket comes up with the princely sum of over £8,000, he, perhaps unwisely for an illicit operation, allows himself to receive publicity in the press but also determines not to keep the winnings for personal profit but to follow the example of Jesus, who as he points out was only a carpenter, just as he is a hairdresser, and distribute them to the needy in his local parish.
He gives a home to petty thief Cooper (Tom Peters) who inspired his channelling of money for relief of the poor. Prostitute Bessie LeGros (Dickie Beau giving an added frisson to the female role), his drinking partner, also enters the household - is her name a sly dig at Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, originally Lucille LeSueur?
Yet Sheppey's plan goes horribly wrong when his prospective son-in-law, county council teacher and aspiring politician, Ernie (Josh Dylan), with a very different view of community, and daughter Florrie (Katie Moore), who has quit her job in the City to be married, dragging along Sheppey's wife Ada (Sarah Ball), conspire with family doctor (Brendan Hooper), presumably a pre-NHS panel doctor, who makes it clear his motive is commercial, profit rather than welfare.
Sheppey has the construction of an old fashioned play - it may move a little slowly for some tastes now - but with very modern concerns and a twist in the tale late on worthy of the much later musical Cabaret in Paul Miller's production.
John Ramm makes a convincing Sheppey, almost coming across as a more benevolent Alf Garnett in his rhythms and justifications. Katie Moore as the upwardly mobile typist daughter Florrie nicely combines lurking vulnerability with steely determination that nothing will get in her way. Sarah Ball's Ada manages the tricky balance between loving, long suffering wife who still gives way to the plot against her husband without losing our sympathies. .
Director Paul Miller retains the three-act structure in a careful production, aided by Max Pappenheim's sparingly and effectively used soundscape.Simon Daw's design neatly conveys the tiled barber shop with advertisement billboards above the in-the round stage area, while a subtle use of phrenology gives added resonance in the second and third act set.
There's a touch of the supernatural reminiscent of HG Wells's short stories combined with the sharp satire of Saki, while other literary references are explicit.
Certainly the audience doesn''t need to know the history of Irish Sweepstakes to be drawn into a secular fable of gambling, greed and then altruism brought down. Even so, it becomes far more double-edged and reflective with an understanding of the subtext of 1930s' world politics, economics and possibly the abuse of parish-based mental asylums when national public scandals rise to the surface.
This is a well-cast seemingly simple piece of a certain pre-World War Two genre, but also accompanied by a more complex undertow. It's an amber/green light for a precise production with a sting in its tale.