The Circle Review

Festival Theatre, Malvern – until 17th February 2024

Reviewed by Courie Amado Juneau


The Circle by Somerset Maugham tells the story of a family reunion that takes an unexpected turn when the misfortunes of the father are revisited upon the son.

The story opens on a sumptuous set evoking the spleandour of a country pile as Arnold is nervously anticipating the arrival of his estranged mother, who he hasn’t seen for 30 years. His wife, Elizabeth, extended the invitation but hadn’t counted on the unexpected arrival of Arnold’s father – nor his mischievous scheming.

Olivia Vinall played Elizabeth with an understated exuberance that befits the era and which was impressively dramatic. I find it hard to warm to anyone contemplating splitting up a marriage but Olivia gave the part such a laudable integrity and compelling gentleness that I found myself rooting for her and hoping she would do the right thing. I just wasn’t sure what the right thing was…

…and therein lies the rub, since this is a very ambiguous play. It doesn’t moralise, nor offer any definitive answers. Instead it explores the full spectrum of familial quandaries from a multitude of angles and leaves one both questioning societal morality alongside ones own. A very illuminating exercise.

The two men in Elizabeth’s life – husband Arnold (Pete Ashmore) and his friend Teddie (Daniel Burke) who she realizes she has fallen in love with, are polar opposites but both actors brought these men to life with passionate portrayals.

From her opening scene’s rather haughty austerity to the more contemplative moments with the two central loves of her life to imparting her hard earned wisdom during the chat with Elizabeth, Jane Asher (as Kitty, Arnold’s mother) showed why has has been such a legend of the stage and screen for so long, giving us a nuanced character study that was never anything less than totally compelling. The scene where she reacts to her old photo and ensuing discussion with her partner was particularly effective and touching.

Clive, Kitty’s ex-husband, was played by Clive Francis with a beautifully light comic touch and a relish that was a joy to behold. I loved his almost under the radar opportunistic meddling. Such delicious peskiness. His former friend (and Kitty’s partner for the last 30 years) Hughie (Nicholas Le Prevost) was equally marvellous although in a totally different way. I found myself totally in sympathy with him. His waffling vocal dismissal was hilarious and a character trait I shall attempt to develop myself.

Like an Agatha Christie where the weapons are words instead of daggers, I was riveted from start to finish, being totally drawn into this domesticated universe of polite warfare. Not so much a whodunnit as a howcouldtheyhavedunnit (or even a howcouldtheyavoiddoingit): it holds an entertaining mirror up to old fashioned attitudes, discussing social mores as history repeats itself a generation apart. A shockingly everyday ending was the final icing on the cake with an unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your point of view) inevitability which displayed the author’s genius.

A study of the complexities of life, love, honour and duty – if you love Oscar Wilde you will love this play – especially given the stellar cast at the top of their game. I certainly loved and can wholeheartedly recommend it.