With a head filled with compassion, but a heart aching with passion, 28 year-old Stella loves her bed-bound husband Maurice but she knows, and Maurice insists on telling her, that life is passing her by. In the comfortable upper-middle class home of Maurice's world-weary mother, accommodations have been made and people are, in that English between-the-wars way, getting on with things. However, it's not long before Maurice's intense carer, Nurse Wayland, lifts the lid on such carefully constructed respectability to force the Tabrets' true natures into the open.
William Somerset Maugham's play (at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 22 September and on tour) is an unapologetically old-fashioned whodunnit, with many a twist and turn before its resolution. At two and a half hours, there's rather more exposition than one would expect these days and one sometimes feels for the actors having to say (sometimes repeat) what they're thinking, rather than act it. The other side of that coin is the space afforded to Mrs Tabret in particular, to explain her startlingly 21st century take on love and life - one rooted in freedoms of ex-patriot life in colonial India. Maurice also speaks eloquently of the mental agony of disability - a sharp reminder of a paraplegic's pain after this Paralympics dominated late summer.
The cast of eight circle each other on a large stage that shrinks as the tensions between them snap, with Beatriz Romilly (Stella) and Sarah Churn (Nurse Wayland) as two opposing takes on womanly devotion, sparring with words and deeds. But it is the least over-written parts that earn the acting plaudits. Jamie De Courcey is winningly charismatic and heart-breakingly broken as Maurice Tabret and Margot Leicester philosophical and funny as his observant and clever mother.
The Sacred Flame won't be for everyone - its ideas and drama aren't quite sufficient to keep it airborne for its full length - but the English Touring Theatre have produced a very traditional take on a work by one of England's great men of letters. For some that, and a nostalgia for a world in which everyone still spoke in full sentences (sometimes full paragraphs) will be plenty enough to warrant a visit to Kingston's beautifully appointed theatre.
Photo Mark Douet