The Circle

The Artistic Director might have changed but the Orange Tree Theatre continues to resurrect plays from eras that many houses might shun. Last year outgoing Director Paul Miller completed his series of Shaw productions with the fabulously amusing Arms and the Man. Now, Tom Littler, newly arrived from Jermyn Street Theatre, has chosen Somerset Maugham’s equally humorous The Circle as his debut work, and what a joy it is.

A masterpiece of naturalism that plays to the intimacy of the theatre

It’s only when a director decides to delve into the past and launch a revival of a work that may have languished for years that we are reminded of the greatness of men such as these and in particular their command of language, extensive vocabularies and exquisite sentence structure. They might have engaged in the occasional ‘damn’ but characters were otherwise able to express themselves fully without recourse to endless swearing and obscenities. The Circle, first produced at the Haymarket Theatre in March 1921, is an opportunity to revel in a linguistically rich period piece, full of wit and humour.

By that time, Maugham was an established author and playwright. 1908 saw four plays of his running contemporaneously in the West End. While his language caused no offence, his plots did not always go down well among the upper classes, whose lives were riddled with social indiscretions, affairs. divorces, camouflages and hypocrisies. Maugham, who spent a lifetime hiding, denying and yet flaunting his homosexuality, depending on where he was and with whom, was only too well aware of this, but it didn’t stop him from exposing the lives of the well-to-do.

The action takes place over the course of a day in an elegant family home in Aston-Adey, Dorset, delightfully brought to life with tasteful period furniture by Designer Louie Whitemore, that allows for ease of movement around the pieces and space for the card table to be opened up.

Arnold Champion-Cheney (Pete Ashmore) enters and is clearly agitated. He stares at a figurine, picks it up and returns it to the precise location from which George Murray (Robert Maskell), his butler, has just removed it. Pacing up and down he contemplates the arrival of his mother, Lady Catherine ‘Kitty’ Champion-Cheney (Jane Asher) and her partner, Lord ‘Hughie’ Porteus (Nicholas Le Prevost) with whom she eloped thirty years ago. Arnold is her only child, but they have not met since she abandoned him and his father Clive Champion-Cheney (Clive Francis) to go off with Lord Porteus. The impending difficult reunion is exacerbated by coinciding with a visit from his father, who is staying in the lodge on the estate. His wife, Elizabeth Champion-Cheney (Olivia Vinall), provides him no comfort, as she is enthusiastically welcoming the arrival of the woman who sacrificed all for love and defied the social mores of the day. As will soon be revealed the realities of Kittie’s life turned out to be less than idyllic and the couple have spent a lifetime of merely tolerating each other, which adds to the tension in the house.

Their circumstances are of particular interest to Elizabeth as she is currently enamoured of Arnold’s friend, Edward ‘Teddie’ Luton (Chirag Benedict Lobo), a planter in the Federated Malay States. Will history repeat itself? The answer to that comes in the last moments of the play which entices to the very end with the back and forth of the, “Will she, won’t she?” question.

For those concerned with the unravelling of plot there is an entertaining sufficiency, but for modern audiences it surely plays second fiddle to the writing and the impeccable delivery by this superbly cast ensemble. Maugham once observed, 'Words have weight, sound, and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to'. One might add that it is only by understanding this that justice can be done to the text by those performing it. Leading this art is the veteran Francis, wittily sardonic and relishing lines that are almost asides, but delivered with a cutting edge, never forgetting the power of the pause to heighten the anticipation. He injects the humour at every opportunity as does Le Prevost who creates a mumbling, chuntering, henpecked man who has clearly learned the art of living and coping with his wife and is resigned to his fate. Asher, in contrast oozes class and self-confidence, dominating scenes as befits her character, holding forth with flawless articulation. The others similarly sustain the style and manners of their class, but it is the casting of Lobo that provides an aural contrast and also serves as a reminder that this was the period of Empire. Presumably the part could be cast as a young, white colonial careerist, instead we have a youthful brown man of Indian-Portuguese descent with a natural Indian accent energetically moving around professing his love for Elizabeth. It’s easy to see why he stirs the spirit of excitement and adventure in her.

Dressed in his cricket whites he stands out in Whitemore’s overall design which features some stunning outfits for Asher. Costume Supervisor Evelien Van Camp has ensured that the fits are perfect and that the vivid colours create a stunning presence which, of course, Asher knows how to exude. Lighting by Chris McDonnell gives added vibrancy and also carefully enhances the passage of time and the varying moods of the room. Playing gently in the background is a rich rural soundscape from Sound Designer Max Pappenheim, that has the singing of birds and the muted woofs of a distant dog interspersed among the music of the period. The production is a triumph for all the creatives involved. Director Tom Littler has created a masterpiece of naturalism that plays to the intimacy of the theatre, performed in the round and utilising the four doorways onto the floor to give the impression of a large country house that extends into the gardens and beyond the confines of this one room.

Ted Morgan, in his biography, Somerset Maugham, claims The Circle as ‘the first of Maugham's plays to be booed’, implying that others came later. The reason according to The Times newspaper of the day was the very last scene: ‘a bold ending – too bold, apparently, for some orthodox moralists in the gallery last night – but approved, we think, by the more mundane majority in the house’. If that was the case, then Littler has deservedly attracted that audience, who rather than being ‘mundane’ are perhaps discerning and show their appreciation with rapturous applause.

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The Blurb

Isn’t it fun being in love with someone who’s in love with you?

The sun is shining on the manicured lawns of the Dorset home of Arnold Champion-Cheney, MP. The Great War is over. Arnold’s political career is blossoming. He has a beautiful young wife, Elizabeth. If only the servants would dust his antiques properly, everything would be perfect.

But Arnold’s idyllic life is about to explode into chaos. His rakish father is staying for the weekend. His scandalous long-lost mother is descending with her detested husband in tow. And there’s a dashing young stranger who seems far too interested in Elizabeth...

Will history come full circle? Or can one generation learn from their parents’ disastrous mistakes? Somerset Maugham’s sparky comedy of manners was first staged in 1921 and has remained a firm favourite with audiences ever since.

This is Tom Littler's first production as the new Artistic Director of the OT since his move from Jermyn Street Theatre.

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