When a play is so caught up in questions of repetition and renewal, as is Somerset Maugham's The Circle, every new production becomes a meta-commentary on the themes of the work. At The Orange Tree Theatre, director Tom Littler once again stages this hundred-year-old comedy of manners. The successes and shortcomings of this new production present a compelling continuation to the conversation started by the text, of how patterns re-emerge and how they change.

The play follows a social visit at the home of upright MP Arnold (Pete Ashmore) whose estranged mother Kitty (Jane Asher) absconded with Hughie (Nicholas LeProvost), a colleague of Arnold's father, decades ago. At the whim of his young wife Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall), Arnold invites them to stay. However, the unexpected arrival of Arnold's father Clive (Clive Francis) throws the week into disarray as Clive embarks on a mission of constant antagonism to prove that Kitty and Hughie's lives are worse for having absconded for love. Things are further complicated when Elizabeth professes her love for houseguest Teddie Luton (Chirag Benedict Lobo) and seems poised to repeat the cycle once again. 

The text inhabits a lively dialectic between preservation and progression, with vivid characters providing entertaining and dynamic articulations of the various viewpoints along this spectrum. The production itself seems to inhabit the synthesis of this dialectic, making intelligent choices of what to preserve and what to change with regards to the original text. Maugham's witty, perceptive script ages well. Aided by a game cast who all seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, the comic dialogue bounces energetically between characters and demonstrates the persistent effectiveness of such a mode of writing, despite its having fallen somewhat out of fashion.

The ideas behind the text have likewise succeeded, for the most part, at maintaining their resonance. The core question behind the play, whether it is better to stay in a loveless marriage, or to follow one's passion, elevates the work above many drawing room plays of the period by transcending the material conditions of the day. While such arguments as the social taboo of divorce and the near impossibility of supporting oneself as a single woman are no longer relevant enough to compel in the same way, the text's deeper themes prove timeless. The transience of passion, the impracticality of love and the tension between decay and stagnation are explored here, providing the otherwise airy comedy with a maturity that grounds.

Littler makes the wise choice to play up the comedy, particularly in scenes which rest on the likeability of characters whose outdated priorities render them unlikeable. Indeed, if some of the more sincere scenes had been played straight, the audience would surely have developed a sour palate from the aftertaste of 'masculine propriety'. Fortunately, he is aided by a wonderfully gifted comic cast; their enthusiasm, chemistry and timing are impeccable and a consistent joy to watch. Chirag Benedict Lobo is a particular highlight, as the ridiculously charming, charmingly ridiculous Teddie Luton.

One 'modern' alteration which grates against the traditional form is the change to in-the-round staging. Purpose-built in-the-round theatres such as The Orange Tree did not exist at the time of Maugham's writing, and they are not suited to the stationary aspect of the drawing room play. Characters have little else to do but sit, recline and retire to the couch in such a way that positions their back to the audience for an extended period of time. When so much of the joy of the play comes from the reactive facial acting of the talented performers, there's nothing more frustrating than seeing half of the room erupt in laughter while you look at the back of an actor's head.

A largely successful display of the continued resonance of the century-old text, this production demonstrates that, with a worthy director and willing cast, The Circle is still well worth repeating.


It runs until 17 June.


Review: Seb Flatau       Photo: Ellie Kurttz