Review: The Sacred Flame (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday November 3)

Dusting down plays by well-known writers which have been rarely performed in recent times is becoming a popular theatrical pastime these days. Sometimes there is the discovery of a creaky old relic - other times a strangely neglected treasure is uncovered.

Following in the wake of such notables as Rattigan, Coward and Pinero, the English Touring Theatre has decided to revisit Somerset Maugham’s The Sacred Flame, written 84 years ago and pretty much ignored since its last big revival in 1966.

In one sense, it’s difficult to see why it hasn’t been performed more often: the themes of sexuality, morality, love, and the right to die are both timeless and hugely contemporary. In this production the characters in their distinctly 1920s clothes and speech play against a modern set of plastic chairs, steel columns and glass walls - which works rather well.

Director Matthew Dunster’s attempt to “blow away the cobwebs” doesn’t entirely work because the play itself (which becomes a whodunit -style thriller as a family tries to discover how a war hero crippled in a plane crash six years before has died at home in suspicious circumstances) is often awkward and at times looks like a limp try-out for a J.B.Priestley play.

The characters themselves veer between the stilted and the mundane, rarely coming close to engaging any sort of sympathy or attention. Good for Jamie De Courcey, then, who has just one brief act to put across the intensity, mental stress and humour of the unfortunate pilot, before being required to remain visible on stage and play dead.

Unsurprisingly for Maugham it is the play’s female characters who are the most interesting and who have hidden strengths and depth. Sarah Churm plays the nurse who cares for her patient with professional skill and a devotion born of secret love with courage and passion, though it is weakened by Maugham’s apparent loss of interest in her character as the play draws to its conclusion. However, she is passionate and tough as she points an accusing finger calling into question the doctor’s verdict on the death.

Beatriz Romilly is the pretty young wife torn between loyalty to her bed-ridden husband and a desire for physical intimacy which he is unable to give, but it is Margot Leicester as, Mrs Tabret, a formidable matriarch with disarming wisdom, who is the most watchable throughout and provides the moral compass.

The ultimate assessment must be that the play was worth dusting down for a look - but it should probably go back on the shelf at the end of the run.

David Guest