Review: The Circle, Richmond Theatre

Jane Asher and Olivia Vinall lead with passionate performances in the Orange Tree’s production of The Circle now playing at Richmond Theatre

“You’re such a ripping good sort”

There may only be a few hundred metres separating Richmond Theatre from the Orange Tree Theatre but the arrival of this touring production of The Circle marks the first time that they’ve officially come together on a show in the 50 or so years that they’ve co-existed. There’s logistical reasons obviously – one is a producing house set permanently in the round, the other is a receiving house and a Frank Matcham original complete with proscenium arch – so it is lovely to see a project emerge on which they could collaborate like this.

Tom Littler’s production of Somerset Maugham’s 1921 comedy played the Orange Tree last spring, with Theatre Royal Bath Productions presenting this short UK tour through January and February which retained almost the entire cast (just Chirag Benedict Lobo to unable return, replaced by Daniel Burke). A sparkling comedy of manners and ineffably English to its core, it opens with all the effervescence of an elderflower fizz but by the time its three short acts have played out, the tone has sharpened a little to more of a gin sour.

We’re in the plush surroundings of the Champion-Cheneys’ family pile in Dorset. Dissatisfied MP Arnold and wife Elizabeth are preparing for a visit from his mother, Lady Kitty, her first in 30 years since eloping scandalously with the dashing Lord Porteous. They’ve an awful lot of history to deal with and as Elizabeth’s eye is constantly drawn to handsome house guest Teddie, a real danger emerges that that history might be repeating itself. With the jilted Clive is lurking around outside, can anything be learned from the past?

There’s beautiful echoes of Rattigan here, in hints of repressed sexualities and the contemporary burdens faced by women. Though never explicit, Pete Ashmore’s achingly unhappy Arnold is queer-coded, a trigger perhaps for Elizabeth’s dreams of escape (plus Louie Whitemore’s costume design puts Daniel Burke’s Teddie in the dishiest of outfits). And the well-worn relationship between Kitty and Hughie is most definitely fraying at the edges, the damage of flirtatious young promise left unfulfilled, life ostracised from all one knows tough to bear.

Maugham tenderly explores the gender inequity at play – women’s suffrage may have arrived but financial independence remains an impossibility, especially in the upper classes, Asher and Vinall truly excelling in a gorgeous scene between their characters. All performances impress actually – Clive Francis is a twinkling delight as a rapscallionish Clive – and Littler really does bring a tender and true emotional intensity to the intricacy of both love triangles, leaving us in no doubt of what’s at stake here beyond the laughter.

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