Alan Stanford directs Somerset Maugham’s 1920s comedy of marital infidelity and hypocrisy to amusing effect, but in a broad manner.
Constance Middleton (Tara Egan Langley) has it all: rich, lovely house, delightful daughter at boarding school. But her friends and relations feel sorry for her. Well, some of them do. Her redoubtable mother Mrs Culver (Belinda Lang) most certainly does not; indeed she has called on her daughter expressly to prevent her spinster daughter Martha (Rachel O’Byrne) informing Constance that her husband John (Simon O’Gorman) is having an affair with Constance’s bubbly and vacuous best friend Marie-Louise (Caoimhe O’Malley). Both of them are surprised when they learn that Constance knew all along, and even more surprised when she manages to convince Marie-Louise’s husband Mortimer (Peter Gaynor) that he is a monstrous cad for suspecting his wife. Little do they realise that Constance has a plan, involving gossip, plausible deniability, and her former beau Bernard (Conor Mullen) just returned from China.
Constance takes a job with her entrepreneur friend Barbara (Ruth McGill), and emancipates herself from economic dependence on her husband; much to his fury. Indeed there’s a lot of comic male bluster in this play. The Constant Wife is quite funny, but is played as slapstick. Gaynor has a fantastic stride of determined and manly apology, while Mullen lurks in a doorway looking back and forth at the adulterous couple with the suspicious gaze of a man who’s just been told what’s going on (and leans back hilariously for one parting warning glance), and O’Gorman nearly blows a gasket in remaining dashed polite to a man he wholeheartedly desires to knock down and set to. Given Constance’s Shavian speeches on economics and her mother’s Bracknellisms you wonder if Patrick Mason could elicit subtler laughs and trim the third act repetitions.
O’Malley Fassbenders as the callous airhead, and Lang is delightfully withering, but O’Byrne overplays her RP accent somewhat. Eileen Diss’ appropriately airy set design gives us a drawing room flooded with light, and Peter O’Brien pulls out all the stops in designing a whole wardrobe of glorious flapper era outfits for Maugham’s women to model. Programming this as high summer fare, for the second time in a decade, seemed an absurd exemplar of Michael Colgan’s latter sterility as artistic director, and news of his retirement followed soon after. Maugham’s play is good, but can one justify reviving it when the Gate has only produced three Stoppard shows since 1984? Being The Real Thing, and Arcadia twice. We know the Gate needs full houses but couldn’t an exuberant Stoppard like Night and Day, Indian Ink, or Jumpers pack a house too?
The Constant Wife is entertaining, but not of Cowardian calibre. It and the Abbey’s ramshackle The Wake have represented a veritable Scylla and Charybdis of commerce over aesthetics and ideology over aesthetics this summer.
The Constant Wife continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 3rd of September.