The Circle

Based on the 1921 post-war family drama by Somerset Maugham, Jane Asher leads a star-studded cast in this modern production, assisted by Pete Ashmore, Robert Maskell, Olivia Vinall, Daniel Burke, Clive Francis and Nicholas Le Prevost. In the run up to writing The Circle, Maugham spent six months in the Far East, leaving his wife alone which clearly helped form the foundation of the play. Maugham was born and raised in Paris, before arriving at public school in England. He married, in 1917, Interior Decorator Syrie Wellcome. It was a deeply unhappy marriage, ending in divorce in 1929. Elements of Maugham’s private life, relationships and extra-marital affairs, are echoed throughout The Circle.

Famous playwrights Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward are two of the most historical figures in British theatre, celebrated poets, novelists, and playwrights. Famous for timeless classics like ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, 'Private Lives', 'Blithe Spirt' and many more. However, few will have come across William Somerset Maugham. Maugham has been described as the missing link between Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward and in his time was at least as popular as either of them.

The Circle centres around 7 characters in a country house. Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) is married to Arnold (Pete Ashmore), an MP with a passion for interior decoration. Arnold Champion-Cheney is panicking about a first meeting of his mother Kitty (Jane Asher) and father Clive (Clive Francis) with Lady Kitty, a society beauty who abandoned her stuffy husband Clive and eloped with the handsome Lord ‘Hughie’ Porteous (Nicholas Le Prevost), returning to the house left behind thirty years ago, to see the son left aged 5. What unfolds is a play of romance, dishonesty, humour, tears and tantrums. Brimming with theatrical delight and an exceptional cast, what more could you want from a night at the theatre?

Thirty years later, originally a marriage between two sweethearts, has now declined to arguing, fallouts and talks of extra marital affairs from every corner of the room. Even young Arnold is facing a similar marital fate, with Elizabeth dissatisfied in marriage, falling for handsome Edward ‘Teddie’ Luton. Will the squabbling ever stop? Will Arnold learn from his parents mistakes or will history end up repeating itself, 30 years later. 

The play itself has changed very little since the original production at the Orange Tree Theatre in the summer of 2023. Originally designed for a theatre-in-the-round, with audience surrounding the stage, a few expansions to the set design helps portray a simple yet effective backdrop for the Oxford Playhouse stage, helping to engage the audience and tell the story.

Clive Francis skilfully portrays Arnold’s farther, humorously exchanging blows with Lord Porteous throughout acts one and two, while quietly plotting in the background. Olivia Vinall skilfully plays Elizabeth, a sensitive soul yet grappling with her emotions for Teddie her young lover who she has never kissed, or stay loyal to Arnold. Jane Asher is undeniably the star of the show as Lady Kitty. Glowing, radiating elegance with every move, her performance portrays a strong yet doubtful character, unclear of previous decisions, stuck in a love triangle. Supported delightfully by Nicholas Le Prevost as an irritable, charming old man. Director Tom Littler keeps the audience guessing until the very end.

The show was reviewed on Tuesday 6th February and marks the debut for Artistic Director Tom Littler.  The Circle runs at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 10th February. Tickets available here: https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/the-circle.

Reviewed by Stuart Midwinter

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Photo credit: Nobby Clark

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