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The Sacred Flame – Liverpool Playhouse

Writer: Somerset Maugham

Director: Matthew Dunster

Reviewer: David Noble

[rating:2]

How to describe The Sacred Flame? Unlike the majority of Somerset Maugham’s plays, it occupies the rare ground of murder mystery cum romantic comedy (yes indeed), and follows the circumstances surrounding the death of paralysed ex-pilot Maurice Tabret, with a far too short lived rôle for the generally excellent Jamie De Courcey. It is unfortunate then that De Courcey aside, the play becomes a confusing, implausible damp squib of baffling proportions.

The Sacred Flame suffers primarily from a shocking paucity of sincerity, as exemplified by the lamentable second half – the characters shift unconvincingly between false emotions, the relationships are unbelievable and the plotline is truly ridiculous. While the plot is severely compromised, the actors also do little to instil any form of empathy; there is an aching atmosphere of stiffness between characters that we are told love each other so devotedly. Therefore, it is difficult to decipher whether the play itself is the root cause of disappointment or if it is merely a ponderous, tame production. In actuality it is probably a combination of both.

To be positive for a moment, the set itself is very well conceived by Anna Fleischle, and in particular the presence of the deceased Maurice illuminated at the rear of the stage is a compelling backdrop. This was a thoughtful and imaginative decision, yet all it does is underline the tepid direction of the actors at the front of stage. It seems that they make no use of space, standing for the most part in a six man (and woman) semi circle – there is no spark, no creativity, no room for interaction – which again adds to the empathetic crater at the heart of the production.

All in all, The Sacred Flame is a hugely uninspiring affair. The whole production is starved of the emotional grounding which all involved in the creative process seemed to ignore. Desperately seeking some form of sincerity, some reality in among the stilted performances, it is all too apparent that the only source of this visceral emotion dies about 45 minutes into the production.

Runs until 20th October 2012.

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