The Constant Wife
JOHN LAWSON Norwich Theatre Royal
Written just eight years after the Suffragettes' 40 year fight for political equality had finally been won, Somerset Maugham's comedy of feminism can still strike a chord.
But while it does illustrate that, even then, women were at last breaking free of the social status which marked them as their husband's chattel, Maugham recognised the inalienable truth – that in most families, then as now, it is the woman who, by her wits and guile, leads the man in precisely the direction she planned while letting him believe he is in control!
Hopefully, we are all closer to achieving true partnerships these days, but in this comedy there was no doubt who was in charge.
Constance Middleton (Liza Goddard in a role just made for her) knew full well that her doctor husband John (Robert East) was having an affair with her best friend Marie-Louise (Sara Crowe) long before the outraged old school of her mother (the redoubtable Virginia Stride), and spinster sister (an almost unrecognisable Susan Penhaligon, turned dowdy beneath the tweeds) could tell her about it.
She was no longer in love with him, but he was continuing to provide for her so she was happy for her life to just tick over.
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But when her husband's indiscretion led to the affair being publicly revealed, the combination of a business opportunity and the arrival of the unrequited Bernard (Michael Praed) prove too much to resist and Constance sets about achieving her financial independence in order to reclaim control of her own life.
The double standards involved are addressed in broad comic strokes with each character enjoying their share of sparkling one-liners which are just as fresh as when they were first written.
Sadly, the premise of her exciting new life rather falls down at the door of Mr Praed, who is completely unbelievable as Bernard. So bumbling and weak is his reading of the character that one could never see a woman of the strength of Constance having anything to do with him.