The Circle, Theatre Royal, Bath and touring

‘I’M old fashioned. I love the moonlight. I love the old fashioned things’, so go the Johnny Mercer lyrics to Jerome Kern’s haunting melody, and the song could well serve as an introduction to Tom Littler’s lovingly directed production of W Somerset Maugham’s wonderfully constructed The Circle.

Written just over 100 years ago, it caused quite a stir in a society where many were still clinging on to Edwardian values. They saw it as an attack on moral values and the institution and sanctity of marriage. How does it hold up in present-day society, where, to use another song title, virtually ‘Anything Goes’.

The answer is, surprisingly well – because it is not only an excellent example of a well constructed play, but a master class in the use of the English language. Maugham supplies his actors with immaculately written and sharp-witted dialogue as he develops the story of history repeating itself, when the beautiful young Elizabeth Champion-Cheney (played by Olivia Vinall) threatens to run off with her handsome lover Teddie Luton (Daniel Burke) leaving behind her dull MP husband Arnold Champion-Cheney (Pete Ashmore).

Thirty years earlier, Arnold’s mother Kitty (Jane Asher) had thrown up everything for love when she had deserted Clive Champion-Cheney (Robert Maskell standing in for the indisposed Clive Francis) in favour of the then-promising politician Lord ‘Hughie’ Porteous. Kitty and Hughie now return as a squabbling, still unmarried elderly couple, and Clive casting a cynical eye on life in general.

As the play progresses we discover that there is a great deal more to be learned about the lives of this trio, what they gave up for love, the prejudices they faced during these last 30 years, and whether or not they felt that the sacrifices they made had really been worth making. And, perhaps even more important, are they going to support Elizabeth in following Kitty’s footsteps, or advise that caution is the better part of valour and encourage her to make a fresh start with Arnold.

The story twists and turns like a well-oiled Agatha Christie plot and you are never quite certain of the outcome until the final moment of the play. I will not be so mean as to reveal the outcome here.

None of this would be acceptable to a modern audience if it was not presented and played in period. Louie Whitemore’s set and costumes give the production an ideal visual tone, the actors take full advantage of the never-the-hint-of-a-swear-word dialogue, written by a master craftsman. The director never allows the production to stray out of the 1920s era.

For any theatre goer, and particularly students of the theatre, who would like to see how a three act play with a beginning, middle and end, SHOULD be constructed, with ideal actable dialogue, by an author who once had four Plays running simultaneously in London’s West-End, this is a must visit.


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