Skip to content

The Circle

by on 7 May 2023

Spiralling Round

The Circle

by W. Somerset Maugham

OT Theatre Productions at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until 17th June

Review by Harry Zimmerman

Somerset Maugham’s 1921 comedy, which twists romantic fates across two generations of a squabbling family, is given a fast paced, yet effectively intimate treatment in Tom Littler’s first production as Artistic Director of The Orange Tree

Elizabeth is married to Arnold, a stolid, buttoned up MP obsessed with his career and ensuring that appearances are properly maintained at all times.  He appears to be the personification of the stiff upper lip.

Arnold has good reason to be as repressed as he is.  At the age of five, his mother, the famed society beauty Lady Catherine “Kitty” Champion-Cheney, scandalously ran off with her lover, Lord “Hughie” Porteus, whose apparently relentless march towards the Prime Ministership was derailed by his romantic entanglement with her.

“Why can’t one be happy, without making other people unhappy?”

Now they are returning for a weekend visit, coinciding with the unscheduled appearance of Arnold’s father, Clive.  To throw further ingredients into the mix, Arnold’s wife, Elizabeth, is herself contemplating leaving her marriage to start a new life with Teddie Linton, a Malay planter portrayed here as a charming, immensely flirtatious, and captivating Indian businessman. 

This is a production which stands or falls by the ensemble playing of the cast, their ability to inject believability into the characters, and convince the audience of the genuineness of the intertwined relationships which powers the plot and drives the pace.  There is nothing to worry about here.  This production is in multiple pairs of safe hands.

Jane Asher’s Lady Kitty, bedecked in scarlet, all waspishness and chatter, holds forth on a multitude of topics breathlessly and confidently.  Her bickering with a curmudgeonly Lord Porteous, played with an effortless querulousness by Nicholas Le Provost, is especially enjoyable.  Le Provost is able to engender appreciative laughs merely with grunts, murmurs, and groans.  Throughout their squabbling, Asher and Le Prevost retain an air of affection and tenderness.

Clive Francis’s portrayal of Clive Champion-Cheney, Arnold’s father and third party in the original triumvirate of scandal, is a delight, offering a series of well timed, and lightly barbed, observations.  His avowal at the beginning of the second act that “ …the most important thing to remember about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to an expediency” in many ways goes to the very heart of Somerset Maugham’s portrait of the machinations of upper-class English society conventions, its’ passions, and the consequences that flow therefrom. 

Whilst this play is now over 100 years old, human nature doesn’t change, and it is through the interactions of the characters, old and young, that we see the inherent complexities of social hierarchies and the consequences of flouting convention.

Whilst it is true that virtually every line may be fruitfully examined to assess subtext and meaning, the narrative rattles along, with several laugh out loud moments, and, equally, moments of powerful passion and emotion.  Of particular resonance was the moment when Lady Kitty weeps, when faced with the photographic evidence of her lost youth and beauty.  Similarly, the highly charged dialogue between Elizabeth, her husband, and her potential new lover, provide memorable highlights.

The Circle, because of the Orange Tree Theatre’s performance parameters, is staged in the round.  This is extremely beneficial to this production, as it creates an intimate and immersive atmosphere, placing the audience right at the heart of the action.  In fact, front row members of the audience are reminded before the start to be aware of where their feet and bags are positioned.

With no actor ever more than a few metres away, the audience feels like they are actually there, in the drawing room, eavesdropping on the characters’ private conversations, and can see all their emotional responses up front, raw in tooth and claw. 

Leaving the theatre, I was reminded of the lyrics of the classic song Windmills of your Mind, “Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel”.

This clever, nuanced and pacy production can still pack a punch, over a century after it was first performed.  The Orange Tree have a hit on their hands.

Harry Zimmerman, May 2023

Photography by Ellie Kurttz

One Comment
  1. Darcy Sato permalink

    Terrific review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: