The Circle (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: May 7, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Ellie Kurtz

Writer: Somerset Maugham

Director: Tom Littler


They say that what goes around comes around, perhaps implying that the mistakes of one generation will, inevitably, be repeated by the next. At least Somerset Maugham seems to think so in The Circle, his 1921 play which, having all but disappeared for decades, now parades itself in front of us again.

The play is set just after the end of World War I among the wealthy upper classes in which the men pursue careers in politics for want of something else to do. Devotees of Downton Abbey should love it. In his first offering as the Orange Tree’s new Artistic Director, Tom Littler comes up with a well rounded, traditional revival which balances light comedy with melodrama deftly. However, the production faces two challenges: firstly that this is only a decent play when the comedy comes to the fore; and, secondly, that the comedy only works when one or more of the three most senior actors is on the stage.

Arnold (Peter Ashmore) and Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) have been married for three years and their union is threatened by mutual boredom and by Elizabeth’s infatuation with the ludicrously excitable visitor, Teddy (Chirag Benedict Lobo). In steps Arnold’s father, Clive (a sprightly Clive Francis), who had been abandoned by his wife, Arnold’s mother, Lady Kitty (Jane Asher in regal mode), who also reappears after a 30-year absence in Italy. She bringing with her Hughie (Nicholas Le Provost looking thoroughly fed up), the man for whom she had left Clive. Robert Maskell hovers around as Arnold’s dutiful butler, reminding us that we are among the privileged classes.

Persistent bickering between Kitty and Hughie gives an instant clue that their three decades together may not have been entirely blissful and subsequent confessions confirm this. So, should history be allowed to repeat itself with Elizabeth’s imminent split from Arnold? Through it all, Maugham’s disdain for the institution of marriage is evident; this could have sent mild shock waves through audiences a century ago, but the play says very little of possible relevance to modern society and relationships.

Maugham’s wit may be sub-Wildean, but the impeccable timing and delivery of Asher, Francis and Le Provost take it up a level. Kitty’s shallow vanity is a marvel, while the twinkle in Clive’s eye tells us that his enforced return to bachelor status may not have been all that bad. The dithering Hughie, we are told, could have been Prime Minister had it not been for the scandal surrounding Kitty’s divorce; thinking of recent holders of that office, this does not seem so implausible.

Little in The Circle speaks to 21st Century lifestyles, but the play gives an amusing glimpse into what much of British theatre could have been like in the days before the kitchen sink revolution of the 1950s. As such, it is good inconsequential fun.

Performance date: 5 May 2923

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