The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham

Dates and Venue 22 January – 22 February 2009 (Tues at 7:30pm; Wed – Sat at 8pm, also matinees on Wed, Sat & Sun at 2pm) | Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage

Director Morris Panich Set Design Ken MacDonald Lighting Alan Brodie Costume Design Nancy Bryant Stage Manager Caryn Fehr

Reviewer John Jane

William Somerset Maugham’s prankish drawing room comedy with its somewhat oxymoronic title is strangely sympathetic to a group that we might have assumed to be in no particular need of sympathy. Who would have thought that trophy wives who have little more to do than play Bridge and occasionally feign contentment for the sake of maintaining appearances needed Somerset Maugham to champion their cause?

Constance Middleton is much less a “constant wife” than a sensibly pragmatic one. She certainly seems to have it all: socially privileged and married to an eminent surgeon who denies her nothing. She is even prepared to ignore her husband’s indiscretions – providing he is discreet.

But when an affair between her husband, John and her best friend, Mary-Louise is exposed, she suddenly finds that she must take action to preserve her financial and social status. Constance gets conflicting advice from her family. Her younger sister, Martha (Moya O’Connell), is indignant and would like to see her get divorced from John; her mother, however, is inclined to do nothing.

Meanwhile a former suitor, Bernard (Mike Wasko) comes back into her life in the hope of rekindling the romantic spark. Constance however, declines anything beyond sharing a platonic relationship whilst in John’s keeping. She decides instead to enter into a business partnership with a friend, Barbara Fawcett (Katey Wright) to become financially self-sufficient.

Nicole Underhay is tremendous as the self-aware eponymous spouse, in a performance that delivers both an understated reserve and a cool facade that belies damaged emotions. She evens her scores with a sublime malevolence; though, less convincing, is her rationale that economic independence affords sexual freedom - an axiom in contradiction to the probity she professes earlier in the play.

Bridget O’Sullivan brings superficial sophistication and wry humour to the role of the munificent matriarch, Mrs. Culver. She gets all Maugham’s best lines in the first act and throws them out with classic nonchalance. Celine Stubel is agreeably preposterous as the blonde and fluffy Mary-Louise. She gets away with making cheating on her husband and betraying her best friend seem like an innocent pastime. I couldn’t tell if her sporadic lisp was deliberate or natural - but it was certainly effective.

Men get short shrift in this production, but Ted Cole really comes into his own as Constance’s blustering hubby, Dr. John Middleton in the final act, when he realises that he must deal with an unpropitious situation.

Morris Panych’s direction achieves the most out of Maugham's lines as he moves the play forward at a bustling pace. Ken MacDonald’s opulent art deco set of the Middleton’s drawing room and Nancy Bryant’s elegant clothing evoke a sense of the time period and bring to bear the characters' nuances.

Somerset Maugham's cleverly plotted play might just as easily have been written for our own times. Would anyone disagree that its themes of excess, betrayal and conjugal impropriety are as prevalent today as they were in nearly a century ago?

© 2009 John Jane