The Breadwinner, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, April 2013

People are trapped by the expectations of society, and it can take a dramatic rupture from convention to move on with your life. This was something Somerset Maugham dealt with in his 1916 novel The Moon and Sixpence, published when he was forty-two, which is precisely the age of Charlie Battle in this play.

Charlie and Alfred, all images Robert Day

Charlie and Alfred, all images Robert Day

Maugham himself, born into a family of distinguished lawyers, opted out of a conventional life when he first decided against a legal career, and then after qualifying as a doctor he abandoned professional life for writing. In this clever play, Charlie is not a lawyer or doctor, but a stockbroker living comfortably with a wife, son and daughter in Golders Green. We also meet his close friend and solicitor named Alfred, who has a wife, son and daughter of similar ages.

Alfred's daughter, Charlie's son

Alfred’s daughter, Charlie’s son

Auriol Smith’s well-directed revival of The Breadwinner has two intervals, and we only meet Charlie just before the first one, having already met the others. They come in various states of vacuity, though they think themselves pretty clever, thoughtful and witty, and all agree that Charlie lacks a sense of humour. In fact, Charlie is the only one who has a sense of humour — the only one who can laugh at himself.

Charlie's wife

Charlie’s wife

Alfred's wife

Alfred’s wife

It all starts with the four callow young people whose naïve ideas that anyone over forty is a dead loss (and it’s a good job so many of them died in the Great War) brought smiles and laughter from the audience. His son Patrick is the worst offender, a clever young man who aims for politics and wants to jump on the Labour bandwagon with no clue about life unsupported by the comforts afforded by a substantial income. But if the young ones are idiotic so are the grown-ups, with Mark Frost and Isla Carter as the bouncy good humoured Alfred and his emotionally too-clever-by-half wife, so sure that they understand what goes on in the minds of others, and Cate Debenham-Taylor so pretty as Charlie’s artistically worthy wife.

You just want someone to put these fools in their places, and Ian Targett as Charlie does it in a cleverly disingenuous way. Three women bounce off him like flies hitting a window pane, and the only person he has any sympathy for is his daughter. Perhaps he will meet her again, but you can see why Targett’s beautifully acted Charlie would be happy to get rid of the rest of them.

Performances of this satisfying production continue until May 18 — for details click here.

Leave a Comment