Review by Harry Bower
It’s rare that you enter a theatre in 2023 and are transported a century into the past. Even rarer, it seems, is to see a production of a play which stays largely faithful to its original text, written 102 years ago. That’s exactly what you get with The Circle, a revival of Somerset Maugham’s comedy of manners, now playing at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.
In the Orange Tree’s intimate space, the show is staged in the round, with each corner door used for the cast to get on and off stage. As the audience take their seats they walk through set pieces; a few period chairs and coffee tables – basic but carefully placed, each heavily used throughout. The year is 1920, and it’s summer. Arnold, an MP, and his wife Elizabeth are a young couple are awaiting guests at their country house. Arnold’s estranged mother, Lady Kitty, and her partner, Lord Porteous, are coming to visit after Elizabeth reached out. It will be the first time Arnold has seen his mother in 35 years, after she left him and his father for another man. Naturally the whole affair is made far more complicated than it otherwise would be by the surprise arrival at the house of Arnold’s father, Clive – who is staying in the cottage in the garden for a few days.
What ensues is awkward family reunions and the uncomfortable scenario of Lady Kitty being faced with the man she left 35 years ago, while still being with the man she left him for, who just so happens to be one of his oldest friends. At the same time, it turns out Elizabeth is threatening to elope with a handsome and confident young businessman, Teddie Luton, who has been staying at the house. And so it seems history is to repeat – Arnold picking up the baton from his father, being left by his wife; a socially unacceptable and ruinous incident with huge connotations for his career, given the time period. Over the timescale of a long weekend, we see Elizabeth in a battle between head and heart, and the interference and advice from the elders muddying the waters. Will she stay or will she go? Will events come full circle?
There might have been a temptation to modernise this piece of work and blend the original text with more up to date language or props or set the same story in a different time period – but those temptations have largely been resisted by Tom Littler, directing his first production as Orange Tree’s new artistic director. There is still an inevitable clash of past and present, though, much of the text relying heavily on accepted norms back then, set against the change in attitudes and society today. It’s worth remembering that this work was seen as pioneering and risky in 1921 – The Times describing it back then as the first of Maugham’s plays to be booed. It’s safe to say that a lot of the impact of its themes is lost when watching it in 2023. Now it serves less as a provocative commentary on society and more an intriguing family drama. The overall vibe reminded me of a murder mystery in a country house, just without the murder.
The play’s humour is something which does translate well into present day, the self-deprecating nature of the characters throwing up lots of opportunity for sarcasm and throwaway lines which raise a smile and a titter. It’s not hilarious, by any means, but its sense of humour adds to the sense of charm and maturity you feel while watching. The writing is sharp and self-aware, yet also fun, in a way which doesn’t undermine the more emotionally heavy scenes.
Blessed with a wonderful cast, this production of The Circle is worth the entry fee alone to see the performance of Clive Francis playing Clive, Arnold’s father. His Clive is utterly delightful – a knowing and cheeky grin and glint in his eye charms as he playfully winds everyone up and revels in the relationship carnage. You really get the sense that Francis deeply understands his character’s motivations and complex emotional journey. Comic timing and warm wit seems woven into the very fabric of the character in his hands. The rest of the cast impress, too, Pete Ashmore and Olivia Vinall playing Arnold and Elizabeth respectively, each developing distinctive personalities which change throughout the piece. Ashmore is adept at portraying a macho-fragility to his character which flexes and bends but never fully breaks. Vinall gives an appropriately restrained performance representing her Elizabeth who feels trapped and bored in her existence. As the play moves into its second act she delivers youthful naivety in abundance.
Jane Asher as Lady Kitty is the coolest of older mothers, floating in and out of scenes as though the whole world has stopped to watch. Effortless passive aggression oozes from Asher in this role, and it is wonderful. Nicholas Le Prevost takes up the role of Lord Porteous and does a fine job of representing a tired old man who is sick of the hubbub and just wants a silent game of Bridge and not much else. The key cast is completed by Chirag Benedict Lobo, playing an Indian businessman and Elizabeth’s love interest, Teddie Luton. Here Luton is played with a spring in his step and an excitable demeanour wholly appropriate for a young man in love. Benedict Lobo is flirty, funny, and unabashed in his portrayal. The house butler, played by Robert Maskell, has few lines but an important role to play – the steadfast reminder that this is an upper-class family (Maskell is reliably subservient).
Some basic but effective lighting and sound design matches some equally light touch direction which considers well the different views for the audience in the round but isn’t particularly brave in its approach. That’s not a criticism – if anything the play is better for its laser focus on the writing which holds up very well under modern examination. The ending might have been controversial in 1921 but it really does prove that Maugham was ahead of his time. Love, marriage, divorce – these are questions and issues which are still present in our society today. The heart is a complicated thing. Fundamentally The Circle is a reminder that beneath all the dinner parties, the butlers, the elections, the fancy cars, the country estates, well, there’s just people. And those people have wants, needs, desires – messy lives. Just like the rest of us.
The Circle plays at The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond until Saturday 17 June 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets visit: https://orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-circle/about
Photos by Ellie Kurttz