Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
Somerset Maugham’s 1927 pot-boiler of upper-crust hypocrisy might be set in Colonial Malaya, but its conventions belong, initially at least, to the primmest of country house murder mysteries. So stiff-upper-lipped is everything that flows from the murder of a white settler made good by the hand of Jenny Seagrove’s fragrant Leslie Crosbie that one half expects Miss Marple to pop round with a ceremonial hookah to get everyone in confessional mode.
As it is, in Alan Strachan’s handsome but politically hollow production, we get Anthony Andrews’ seemingly incorruptible Howard Joyce. As a lawyer for whom the scales of justice are eternally weighted in favour of the English establishment he represents, he is the flipside of To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. The deal that Joyce’s Malayan deputy brokers, whereby the incriminating epistle that exposes Leslie’s actions as considerably more than self-defence, leaves the apparent master-race miserable, emotionally broken and facing possible penury.
This most well-behaved come-uppance comes in Maugham’s stock-in-trade clipped tones, but, despite its acquiescence to the era’s institutionalised racism, it’s what’s left unsaid that’s of interest here. Hints of other worlds constantly surface from its over-glossed murk that lays bare a dark, oddly Stevensonesque duality. This may explain Leslie’s unspoken frustration with husband Geoffrey, whose love appears sexless and, in 1927 at least, quite possibly nameless.
Where a more serious approach might add whispers of this, Seagrove and Andrews are allowed to ham up the period plumminess for all its worth. As a result, any subtlety is lost, and something which should rightfully devastate is left bereft of depth and feeling.
The Herald, February 28th 2007