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The Circle by Somerset Maugham at Richmond Theatre | Review

This probably wasn’t a play intended as a ‘period piece’ when it was first produced in 1921 but it has become one, and it therefore required, at least for me, a more conscious effort to suspend disbelief at the theatre doors. But plays like The Circle are also indicative of how society has progressed in the century since it premiered (and, indeed, other areas in which it hasn’t done quite so well). These were the days when well-to-do large family homes were staffed (‘servanted’ isn’t, I’m told, a proper word), and if anything, it was rather amusing to see people like Arnold Champion-Cheney MP (Pete Ashmore), quite unable to do very much for himself without the assistance of trusty Murray (Robert Maskell).
Review of The Circle by Somerset Maugham at Richmond Theatre
There’s no getting around the quaintness of the show. Perhaps saying ‘damn’ might still have been considered coarse language in some circles in 1920 (when the show is set) – either way, it’s a far cry from the ‘eff, cee and effing cee’ dialogues of certain shows these days. The set and costumes (both Louie Whitemore) are, depending on one’s outlook, either nothing to write home about or otherwise gloriously appropriate for the era. As far as the storyline is concerned, part of me thinks this is, through twenty-first-century lenses, much ado about nothing, so to speak: then again, some of what is said in this play could potentially, if said today, still land its characters in trouble, or perhaps, as the show might put it, ‘a spot of bother’.

It pleases the Richmond Theatre that a production that started out at the Orange Tree Theatre, about five minutes’ walk away, has set up residence for a week in their venue. I can’t help but think it must have worked better at the Orange Tree, where every show is presented in the round: in a proscenium arch theatre, the rapid pace of delivery (which the script’s comedic nature largely dictates) is a tad too fast, in the sense that not every line was crystal clear. Is it the acoustics of the building? Is it that the actors could project a bit more (they were speaking unamplified, sometimes upstage)? Is it both?

Fortunately, it’s not exactly the most complex of storylines, thanks to a relatively small number of characters. I can only assume it’s not on the school curriculum, given the lack of school groups in the audience – there’s plenty to ‘study’ (inverted commas mine) when looking at the outmoded viewpoints from the colonial era. Elsewhere, I was able to follow more or less what was happening with a game of bridge, having never played it myself before. With regards to another scene, however, there is something a bit odd about watching other people reading quietly. The only other time I’ve done that recently was when I had no choice: I was on the London Underground bringing home a number of Christmas gifts from the office, and having to hold on to them all meant I didn’t have any hands left to read a book or newspaper.

Anyway, I’ve evidently not seen many plays from a bygone era lately – the downright misogynistic outlooks (by today’s standards, that is) were, frankly, distinctly uncomfortable to witness, countered to an extent by Clive Champion-Cheney’s (Clive Francis) mischievousness and Lady Kitty’s (Jane Asher) growing old (sort of) disgracefully and loving it. Distinctly in the realm of first-world problems, Arnold’s outburst at his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) was like watching a toddler throw a temper tantrum and declare everything that isn’t exactly what he wants to be unfair. What hasn’t changed is public interest in the private lives of public figures and their offspring. This briskly paced and slightly too subtle production provides amusing insights into what constituted a personal scandal in the interwar period.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Will history come full circle? Or can one generation learn from their parents’ mistakes?
Jane Asher (Alfie, Deep End) plays Lady Kitty, a society beauty who notoriously abandoned her stuffy husband Clive (Clive Francis, The Crown), and eloped with the handsome Lord Porteous (Nicholas Le Prevost, Shakespeare in Love, Testament of Youth).

Thirty years later, love’s young dream has descended into non-stop squabbling… Meanwhile Clive and Lady Kitty’s son Arnold (Pete Ashmore, The Lovely Bones) faces the same marital fate, as his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall King Lear, Othello, National Theatre) threatens to elope with the dashing Teddie Luton.

Somerset Maugham’s sparky comedy of manners was first staged in 1921 and has remained a firm favourite with audiences ever since. Maugham was among the most successful novelists and playwrights of the inter -war years. Many of his novels, including The Painted Veil, Theatre, Up At The Villa and Of Human Bondage have been adapted for the screen.

Theatre Royal Bath Productions present
The Orange Tree Theatre production of

Directed by Tom Littler

Jane Asher – Lady Catherine ‘Kitty’ Champion-Cheney
Clive Francis – Clive Champion-Cheney
Nicholas Le Prevost – Lord ‘Hughie’ Porteous
Olivia Vinall – Elizabeth Champion-Cheney
Pete Ashmore – Arnold Champion-Cheney
Robert Maskell – Murray & Understudy Clive Champion-Cheney / Lord ‘Hughie’ Porteous

View All Shows Booking at Richmond Theatre
The Green, Richmond, TW9 1QJ


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