Sunday 28 May 2023

Review: A Crack in the Mountain

My review of Alastair Evans' documentary A Crack in the Mountain is in this month's issue of Sight and Sound, and up on the website. You can read it here

Thursday 11 May 2023

Theatre Review: The Circle (Orange Tree)


Part of the pleasure of W. Somerset Maugham's work is the way in which a seemingly conventional surface gradually splits open to reveal subversive elements. Maugham's plays may look like polite drawing room dramas or comedies but the middle-class trappings conceal  unorthodox thinking - whether that's an endorsement of euthanasia in The Sacred Flame, a critique of war in For Services Rendered, a defence of a dissatisfied patriarch's decision to leave his family in The Breadwinner, or a general vision of ever-shifting relationships that can still feel surprising today.

Predating those plays (it was first performed in 1921) the challenge to the sanctity of marriage offered in The Circle looks highly unlikely to inspire the boos that it apparently elicited in its premiere - especially since the play's final act is, in truth, a bit of a mess. Tom Littler's production - his first as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, taking over following Paul Miller's successful 9 years - doesn't manage to solve those weaknesses but it makes for a sharply funny and entertaining evening nonetheless. Littler delivered a strong, Chekhovian production of For Services Rendered at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2019 and clearly has a gift for presenting Maugham in small spaces, helped along here by a crack cast.

Like The Breadwinner, staged at the OT exactly 10 years ago, The Circle focuses on a parent's leaving of their family - but in this case it's the mother who the deserter, and the abandonment has happened some 30 years before the events of the play begin. Lady Kitty Champion-Cheney walked out on her husband Clive and young son Arnold to be with her lover Hughie. Decades on, Arnold's wife Elizabeth has organised a reunion: inviting Kitty and Hughie back to the Dorset family home, much to the chagrin of Arnold, who's now an MP. While she wants to reunite mother and son, Elizabeth's motives aren't entirely altruistic. Motherless herself, she's curious about Kitty whom she's come to admire for her bold stance in turning her back on convention to pursue her own desires. And with friend Teddie evidently interested in her, Elizabeth soon finds herself in a similar quandary that looks like it might result in a little case of history repeating.

The funniest parts of The Circle come in the second act, in which Elizabeth's romantic perception of Kitty is challenged by the reality of her appearance. Jane Asher delivers a glittering comic performance that digs into Kitty's vanity, superficiality and anxiety about her age  - not to mention her palpable disillusionment at the way her decision to leave has panned out. There's some hilarious sniping between her and Nicholas Le Prevost grumping, querulous, dentally challenged Hughie,  and Clive Francis proves their match in a hilariously wily  turn as the deserted spouse who can't help but relish their arguments, and whose own life hasn't lacked in sexual adventures.

The younger cast members -Pete Ashmore as Arnold, Olivia Vinal as Elizabeth, and Chirag Benedict Lobo as Teddie - don't manage to match the older generation: the necessary chemistry between Vinal and Lobo isn't quite there, but Ashmore does bring a memorable ferocity to the proceedings as Arnold realises he might be facing his father's fate. Some elements of the production feel like missed opportunities: Robert Maskell's Butler constantly seems on the cusp of doing something funny without ever quite delivering and Louie Whitemore's design is minimal, apart from some eye-catching costumes for Asher which nicely reflect the character's trajectory as the silly Kitty belatedly reveals some sensitivity.  The twists and turns of the climax don't manage to produce a satisfying conclusion but Maugham's tolerant writing distributes sympathy in unexpected places and there are enough comic highspots to make this pleasing revival worthwhile.

The Circle is booking until 17 June.