Sheppey review at the Orange Tree Theatre, London – ‘strikes a festive note’
No man is an island, even if he’s named after one, but in Somerset Maugham’s 1932 play Joseph “Sheppey” Miller feels the need to connect with fellow humans more than most. A cheerful hairdresser’s assistant, Sheppey wins the lottery and, instead of spending his winnings on his family or a little cottage in the country, he decides to help the poor and the hungry.
His family, of course, think he’s gone mad – especially his slightly venal daughter and her pompous fiance – and they set out to prove it. Although the production feels old-fashioned, the relevance of the play isn’t hard to see: Sheppey’s Trussell Trust magnanimity is pitted against a society full of people who only look after their own. “A sane men doesn’t give all of his money to the poor,” says one character. “A sane man takes money from the poor.”
In fact, director Paul Miller has made a smart choice having Sheppey run through December, alongside the myriad stage versions of A Christmas Carol and repeats of It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. This play contends with the best of Christmas stories: it’s just as festive and uplifting, striking the same notes of goodwill to all men, of human kindness beating misers and misery any day.
There are one or two shaky performances, alongside an excellent turn from Dickie Beau as prostitute Bessie Legros, his skittish eyes and downcast head showing how destitution has stripped this “common tart” of her dignity, but what carries the show is John Ramm as Sheppey. He explains the rationale for his generosity calmly, persuasively, all the while wearing a wide and generous grin. And the relentlessness of Ramm’s optimism, his determination to live according to Christian tenets, is quite moving.