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FringeReview UK 2023

The Circle

Orange Tree Theatre

Genre: Costume, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

In short, consummate, with luxury casting, deft rethinking but still faithful to the original as it refreshes it: the finest revival of Maugham – till the next one in Tom Littler’s hands, perhaps.

Director Tom Littler, Designer Louie Whitemore, Lighting Designer Chris McDonnell, Sound Designer Max Pappenheim

Assistant Director Sam Woof, Production Manager and Technical Director Stuart Burgess, CSM Jenny Skivens, Costume Supervisor Evelien van Camp, Deputy Stage Manager Vicky Zenetzi, ASM Lily Collins, Production LX Amy Hill

Rehearsal & Production Photography Ellie Kurttz.

 Till June 17th


“It ends in indifference” warns Lady Kitty Champion-Cheney (Jane Asher) of leaving your husband for a lover 30 years ago; this to a wife of 25 contemplating the same, in Somerset Maugham’s 1921 The Circle, revived at the Orange Tree. But does it?

It’s fitting the OT’s new artistic director Tom Littler makes his directing debut here with Maugham. It continues his success with this writer begun with For Services Rendered at Jermyn Street in 2019. It also builds on early 20th century British-Irish theatre by OT predecessors Sam Walters (Maugham revivals culminated in The Breadwinner, 2013) and Paul Miller, specialising in Shaw and Rattigan, who also directed Maugham (Sheppey, 2016).

1921 wasn’t long after Somerset Maugham had four plays playing simultaneously in the West End. His The Circle though outdid them all in popularity. Postwar allowed Maugham further explicitness: this play’s almost French in subject-matter and the only surprise is, that few plays of this kind followed in the 1920s, save by Maugham himself. Even there The Circle is a marooned small gem, ahead of its time.

There’s an acknowledged theatre-a-clef with this play. Maugham’s estranged wife Syrie was an interior designer: triangles in Maugham’s life lightly inform the texture. After three years of marriage to dull diligent MP Arnold Champion-Cheney (Pete Ashmore) – who delights in interior design more than his wife – Elizabeth Champion-Cheney (Olivia Vinall) champs as it were, at the first handsome man to pay court. Arnold even names “sex” as something surely over with, and lack of children is clearly aimed at Elizabeth by others, not Arnold.

When Elizabeth invites Arnold’s mother and her partner to stay – Arnold’s not even seen her since he was five – this causes enough turbulence. But Clive, Arnold’s father, manages to insert himself mischievously into the party, revelling in others’ discomfiture. Easily resigning his own seat after the scandal, he often reflects on his old friend’s throwing away the career of a man tipped as a future PM. Even this, luckily, is debatable. Maugham isn’t Wilde: he’s deliberately destabilising: loyalties and even perspectives shift.

Vinall’s Elizabeth is one of those Maugham characters who simmers and – here, lightly – explodes. Not offered the greatest range for an actor of her calibre,  Vinall as ever is consummate, judging to a nicety containment and trembling dare, as well as lightly satirical digs at her ambivalent father-in-law. It’s clear too the dramatic burden lies in her and the three older protagonists, and Littler does his best to balance this.

Recently demobilised plantation businessman Teddie Luton (Chirag Benedict Lobo) is superbly reinvented as an Anglo-Indian whose frequent British slang like “ripping” here gains extra layers and poignancy: someone trying to find his feet again in a land now alien to him. Lobo also impels just the right degree of entreaty and impatience, and his “bull-in-a china-shop” persona, as dismissed from the start by Arnold, is impelled from revelatory depths in his last speech. He’s a Teddy here, finally, to believe in.

Ashmore’s finnicky Arnold teeters on the verge of feeling, patterning himself on his own father’s MP career. Frozen by his mother’s desertion when five, all the ingredients of a man locked out of himself early on make for a sympathetic study; though even his final entreaties hold back from touch, aren’t quite what they seem. Arnold’s most passionate moment comes in one of dismissal. A chief reason he’s opposed to Elizabeth leaving is his unstable seat. It’s an unlovely part and Ashmore’s so convincing he makes you squirm.

With Elizabeth the burden of this play – and dialogue – lies with the older generation, the ones who play on their second selves like gods. The triangle played out 30 years earlier now dazzle at Bridge with an absent chair for Elizabeth, so to speak.

Maugham upset conventions by having a once-injured husband the soul of urbanity and forgiveness, “clever as a bagful of monkeys” in Elizabeth’s dated parlance. Clive Champion-Cheney (Clive Francis) is a wickedly wise creation, playing off the estranged couple to bring them together, delighting in his own stratagems, abetted from different perspectives by his ex-wife and even her partner. Demolishing Kitty to Elizabeth, he turns on her: ”Don’t let humbug obscure your common sense….. You think I’m a cruel, cynical old man… if I didn’t laugh at what she has become I should cry.”

More disturbing is Clive’s ‘patronage’ of young women (though his former wife settles for steamy Italian lovers): “the luxury of assisting financially a succession of dear little things, in a somewhat humble sphere, between the ages of 20 and 25” before sending them off with a diamond ring. Francis glitters in such moments, buttonholing, darting and scheming.

Asher’s Kitty is another curious creation, which Asher brings off with warmth poised on a question-mark. Forever 27, her age when eloping, a perhaps frivolous, perhaps needy new convert to the Catholic church (allowing her to make a pass at Clive), she’s upset when Clive wickedly shows her an old photo of herself. Kitty’s soul, Maugham suggests, revolves around lipstick. She’s shocked Elizabeth refuses any. But she delivers the key speech about love ending in indifference and suddenly changes her mind based on evidence. Asher manages the grace Kitty needs to break out of Maugham’s cellophane.

Lord Hughie Porteous (Nicholas Le Prevost) is a character permanently discomfited by his false teeth, a foil to his cuckolded former friend’s urbanity: it’s a neat reversal. Clive has pursued questionable love affairs, reconciled to himself. He delights in the long-eloped couple’s eternal bickering. But Le Prevost, usually urbanity itself, holds this in reserve when rising to the final scene and getting some fine dialogue: “If we made rather a hash of things it was because we were rather trivial people. You can do anything in the world if you’re prepared to face the consequences, and consequences depend on character.”

Twice in this play you might wonder at Maugham suddenly pushing an intimacy or depth not worked for. Elizabeth very early warms, even over-shares to Kitty, rationale being the early loss of her own mother and desiring a substitute. The other lies in Kitty’s – and Hughie’s – sudden profundities, treasurable as they are.

Along with Wilde and Coward, this mostly gay, part-Irish and wholly iconoclastic group – including OT regulars Shaw, Maugham and Rattigan – brought British-Irish theatre out of two centuries of sleep, only sporadically roused by Irish dramatists. Rattigan’s reputation soars again. Maugham’s, more even in quality, less studded with acknowledged masterpieces, fluctuates. We’re continuously surprised by discoveries, subject-matter’s often more challenging and various. Perhaps no Hester Collyer rears up. But then Maugham refuses to be wholly tragic, even with a smoking gun. There’s wry detachment – often as scintillating dialogue – distancing us.

Louie Whitemore refuses to be intimidated by Maugham’s copious set-designs and suggests – even more lightly than the Rattigan/Shaw productions here – a consummate sketch: double doors (as often), Persian carpet, a few elegant chairs (wait for the malapropism of Sheriton/Sheridan), tables and some comedy with a single statuette, which placement Arnold and butler Murray (Robert Maskell) clearly disagree over. Maugham hadn’t yet learned from Coward the generosity of lines to servants. A Footman, and another house-guest are sensibly cut from this production and lines redistributed.

Max Pappenheim’s sound sashays between slightly later 1920s jazz and delightful early-1920s post-pastoral British music sounding like Eugene Goossens’ Octet. Chris McDonnell’s lighting diffuses some glimmering dawn atmosphere on occasion.

In short, a consummate production; with luxury casting, deft rethinking but still faithful to the original as it refreshes it: the finest recent revival of Maugham – till the next one in Littler’s hands, perhaps.