Sheppey, Somerset Maugham’s sardonic comedy, a modern morality play rooted in the 1929 slump and addressing the suffering of the poor, is successfully revived at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. When he was writing it in 1933, Maugham knew that it wouldn’t be popular with West End audiences, and he was right. The Christian message – give to the poor and love thy neighbour – did not appeal and it ran for just 83 performances.
Sheppey, a Cockney barber, is a friendly, good-humoured, generous but naïve sort of chap who wants everybody to be happy. The role was created by the young Ralph Richardson and played by Bob Hoskins on television in 1980. Paul Miller’s admirable production is the first since then. And what better time to revive Maugham’s satire than during the festive season, with good will towards all men?
Sheppey (John Ramm, well cast) wins £8,500 in the Irish sweepstake and decides to give it all to the poor. He says he wants to live like Jesus. His wife (Sarah Ball) is naturally upset: Christianity is not something you should actually practise. His obnoxious daughter and her conceited fiancé want him certified insane so that they can have the money. The fiancé (Josh Dylan making his professional debut) is very funny when he is arguing that what Jesus said was not meant to be taken literally.
A doctor (Brendan Hooper) is also keen to have Sheppey certified. As he points out: “A sane man is not going to give all his money to the poor. A sane man takes money from the poor.”
There aren’t enough parts for women. The solution director Phyllida Lloyd and actress Harriet Walter have come up with at King’s Cross Theatre is for women to play men’s roles and to justify the casting. Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest are set in a women’s prison; but it doesn’t work because the inmates take precedence over Shakespeare’s characters. The high spot is Walter as Prospero launching into a deeply moving delivery of the lines beginning: “Our revels now are ended.”
Mark Rylance goes from success to success: Jerusalem on stage, Wolf Hall on television and Bridge of Spies and The BFG on film. At the Tony Awards he delivered a prose poem by Louis Jenkins instead of making an acceptance speech. Rylance and Jenkins have now got together to write Nice Fish, which has transferred from New York to the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Two anglers sit on a frozen lake in Minnesota, fishing, chatting, philosophising. It’s not a play; it’s a collection of monologues and duologues. But it’s not a revue; it’s a quilt of prose poems and black-outs. It’s humorous, it’s oddball, it’s eccentric, it’s absurdist and it’s fishy. Bits are funny. But a lot of it is not funny and is boring.
A stand-up comedian takes the cerebral, middle-class approach at Leicester Square Theatre, in Stewart Lee: Content Provider. Lee is a comedian for grown-ups who enjoy irony. His main target is the audience, whose IQ he constantly questions; and the more insulting he is, the more the audience likes it. “What’s your problem?” a roars when the laughter does not measure up to his expectation. As he points out, he is a professional, five-star stand-up comedian and he knows what’s funny, and we don’t.
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