The Circle, a classic 1921 play by Somerset Maugham, is an elegant exploration of social conventions and hidden passions. Under the skilful direction of Tom Littler, this production brings to life the intriguing world of the British upper class in the early 20th century. Lady Kitty (Jane Asher) ran away to Italy with her lover, Lord Porteous (Nicholas Le Prevost) thirty years ago, leaving behind Kitty’s husband, Clive (Clive Francis) and son, Arnold (Pete Ashmore). Now they are back for their first visit since leaving, Clive has also dropped in unexpectedly, and Arnold’s wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) and her ‘friend’, Teddy (Chirag Benedict Lobo) are getting closer all the time. What could possibly go wrong?
The characters in The Circle are richly drawn and fascinatingly flawed. Through their interactions, we see the complexities of social hierarchies and the consequences of flouting convention. From Lady Kitty, whose emotional vulnerability belies her seemingly carefree exterior, to Clive Champion-Cheney, a charming rake whose playboy persona hides a lost and lonely life, each character is recognisable as a type we all know.
From the original love triangle, Jane Asher’s Lady Kitty is a tour de force, radiating elegance and sophistication with every move she makes. Her performance is nuanced and layered, showing both the outer shell of a perfect society woman and the inner turmoil of a woman struggling to find her own identity. Nicholas Le Provost’s Lord Porteous is a perfect foil to Lady Kitty, a gruff yet endearing grumpy old man who is set in his ways (and very upset about his false teeth, a joke that kept coming back and became funnier every time it did). Clive Francis’s Clive is a character that can’t help but be loved, with his devilish charm and sardonic wit.
And then there is the next generation, and the same problematic pull between desire and duty. Pete Ashmore’s Arnold is a complex and flawed character, his love for his furniture taking precedence over his relationship with Elizabeth. Olivia Vinall’s Elizabeth adds a touch of youthful idealism to the mix, bringing a fresh perspective to the older, more jaded characters. Chirag Benedict Lobo’s Teddie Luton rounds out the cast, bringing a sense of innocence and vulnerability to his portrayal that is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching.
As we watch these characters sip tea and play bridge, we’re reminded that beneath the niceties and polite conversation lies a world of hidden desires and simmering resentments.
The dialogue in The Circle is as effervescent as the bubbles in a glass of champagne, with every line loaded with subtext and meaning. However, the sparkling conversation is sure to cause the characters a hangover in the morning once the fizz wears off andthe real meaning sets in. There are cutting jabs and barbs and plenty of laugh out loud comments to put the audience at ease (there is a lovely scene in which Lady Kitty and Lord Porteous argue about whether or not she would have been given India or Western Australia if he had ever become prime minister), but there are equally moments of real passion and emotion, and some of the best examples of this were in conversations between Lady Kitty and Lord Porteous – they’re the old bickering couple everyone half admires and half worries about.
One unique aspect of this production is the fact that it’s staged in the round, due to the Orange Tree Theatre’s performance space. This works particularly well for The Circle, as it creates an intimate and immersive atmosphere, placing the audience right in the heart of the action. With no actor ever more than a few feet away, the audience feels like they are eavesdropping on the characters’ private conversations and secret machinations. It also emphasises the circular nature of the play’s themes, as the characters’ actions and desires come full circle in a satisfying, if not always happy, resolution. The staging is expertly done, with a minimal set design and clever use of lighting to create different moods and atmospheres throughout the play.
The Circle is a captivating and timeless play that exposes the intricate workings of the upper-class society. It’s a poignant reminder that the façade of polite society often hides a world of complexity and passion, where the stakes are high, and the consequences of our actions are never far behind.
The Circle is at The Orange Tree Theatre until 17th June 2023