The Circle ★★★

The Circle, Somerset Maugham’s comedy of manners, asks the timeless question: can one generation learn from their parents’ mistakes?

Tom Littler’s production of Somerset Maugham’s ‘quaint’ comedy The Circle, originally produced five minutes up the road at The Orange Tree Theatre, is back this time with a proscenium arch at Richmond Theatre, the way it was originally written. With just one cast change, Littler promises the same production as before, without ‘the risk of the audience’s feet tripping up the actors’. Set in the 1920s in a Dorset home, a family learns how quickly french windows can shatter when stones are thrown. Arnold Champion-Cheney, fights to keep his house in order and his 18th century chair well kept, whilst welcoming his estranged mother and the man she ran away with 30 years ago into his and his wife Elizabeth’s home.

Image by Ellie Kurttz

Enter Arnold’s father Clive, expertly embodied by Clive Francis, who having played the role of Teddie Luton in 1976, now brings his timing and pendulum effect between humour and tragedy as the ‘wicked old man’ spurned by his wife Lady Catherine ‘Kitty’. Jane Asher is ‘Kitty’ the effervescent, self absorbed faux socialite, with ‘a soul as rouge as her sickly face’ who chose love over security and threw it all away for her beau Lord ‘Hughie’ Porteous, Nicholas Le Prevost, once tipped to be a future Prime minister, now a bitter, downtrodden old man longing for his glory days and his teeth to stay in place.

Director Littler clearly respects and admires Maugham which probably would account for the decision to honour traditional staging and performance style. Louie Whitemore’s set and costume are indicative of the time and era in which it was set; lavish and quintessentially British, with reference to how Arnold, Pete Ashmore, has a keen eye for interior design. It echoes of drawing-room plays, everything happening in the same place, with one memorable set change, under low level lighting, to set up the bridge table.

The charm of this piece lies in the deft delivery of some of the more tragic moments held together with the keeping up appearances of upper echelon society, as this conflict pulls the family apart. Here, the cast are at their best, using their position and their intention of fear of falling from these luxuries to inform their decisions and relationships with one another. The dark foreboding of the cuckoo heard in the distance throughout as a reminder of the cuckolding of Kitty to Clive and their counterpart reflection of Elizabeth to Arnold. Coupled with the allure of what was once Hughie and now Teddy, Littler is deliberate in telling the audience what is going to happen and how it will all come full circle. It is here the play is well done and well executed.

Image by Nobby Clark

Originally a comedy in three acts, the permission to laugh is not given until Clive Francis, enters the room. Daniel Burke’s debonair, dashing, playboy Teddy Luton offers a few quips to break the moments of tension, and if given more room to play, his performance would have allowed the audience more opportunities to find amusement in the apparent foreboding of history repeating itself.

There are moments where the ensemble cast teases a symbiosis and harmony that relaxes and delights the audience. Clive revealing his playful side through showing a photo album to Elizabeth resulting in Kitty in tears is one of these moments. There are times, however, where it seemed to favour individual performances that rarely connected. The younger cast seem to be fighting with their more experienced costars. Asher, Le Prevost and Francis, make a game of patience the most thrilling part of the play, whilst the crescendo of Arnold telling Elizabeth, Olivia Vinall, to leave and run off with Teddy Luton, lacked the oomph and gut-wrenching pain of watching a man risk letting go of his wife that it should have. As an audience we were instead drawn to the unyielding relationship of the wise Kitty and Hughie, who despite their decision to be together, urges Elizabeth and Teddy  to not let history repeat itself and to avoid making the same mistake. This performance is utterly charming, moving the audience investment away from the ‘passionate runaway with me’ kind of love and more interested in what happens after the passion dies out and ‘indifference’ persists.

At points it felt as if the cast were working with different styles, Arnold, whose erratic jumping between holding it together and reverting back to the 5 year old left behind became hard to connect with, as did his constant persistence on pitch change. You can’t help but feel sorry for Arnold and yet you may find yourself rooting for his father, the endearing ‘wicked old man’ and his mother, the woman who left him and the man she left him for.

Asher as Kitty takes the audience from despising the woman, who left her family behind and her apparent disregard for the damage she has caused to Clive and Arnold, to empathise with her in her somewhat post-feminist confession of how throwing away the life she had to live an adventurous life for love, meant she was and will always be dependent on the men in her life, encouraging, the indecisive and hopelessly romantic, Elizabeth to stay with Arnold.

Overall, a charming production of a classic text and a joy to be able to see these words on stage again. However, the feeling persists that enjoyment of the play may be down to the beauty of Maugham’s writing, and perhaps not to do with this particular production.  When theatre, at the moment, is fighting to one up each other on being ground-breaking and avant-garde, sometimes a production of a classic piece of theatre comes along which is delightfully timeless and well done and there will always be a place for theatre like this, and this slippers-on, drawing-room comedy is recommended,  if only to see Asher as a vision in copper from head to toe.

Somerset Maugham’s writing endures, with Jane Asher as the cherry on the cake – ★★★ 3 stars

The Circle Tickets

The Circle runs at Richmond Theatre until Sat 24 Feb 2024

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