Broken relationships abound in 'The Circle'Nobby Clark with permission for Varsity

“The tragedy of love isn’t death or separation,” says Lady Kitty (Jane Asher) in the Cambridge Arts Theatre’s showing of The Circle. “The tragedy of love is indifference.” The aphorism certainly rings true in the Champion-Cheneys’ home, a breezy yet harrowing space in which the hidden tensions and tendernesses of polite society cannot but unravel themselves. Elizabeth is married to well-to-do MP Arnold Champion-Cheney, and the play opens with them anticipating the arrival of Arnold’s mother Lady Kitty and her partner Lord Porteous. When Arnold was a boy, Lady Kitter eloped with Porteous to the horror of her then-husband Clive Champion-Cheney, and since has had to cope with her exclusion from most social circles. Struck by the romance of this story, Elizabeth begins to see her own marriage in a new light…

"The hidden tensions and tendernesses of polite society cannot but unravel themselves"

Director Tom Littler has birthed an elegant creation, full of wit and delicacy. His drawing room is wonderfully intimate: the windows are bright and the doors leading onto the porch allow for surprising and pleasing interventions (like when Clive first approaches Lady Kitty from the garden). The action feels, as in most plays of the 1920s, profoundly destabilised. A certain meaninglessness settles like a layer of dust during the two hours that I was seated in the theatre. It became clear that the secret weapon of The Circle was its subtlety; rarely do thundering outbursts disturb the domestic setting. Even so, the characters’ interactions are imbued with a remarkable sincerity.

"A certain meaninglessness settles like a layer of dust"

Anchored in disillusioned post-war Britain, Maugham exchanges opium for nostalgia in his staging of broken relationships. Elizabeth (Olivia Vinall) enters the scene clutching a copy of Anna Karenina while Lady Kitty (Jane Asher), her mother-in-law, sobs over a photo of her younger self in Act III. These are women haunted by the ghost of romances past and whose actions are on the whole determined by whatever strikes their fancy: ‘My dear, how you let your imagination run away with you!’ exclaims Clive to Elizabeth on one occasion. Indeed, the outcome of the play is largely determined by escapist fantasies such as these, longings for happiness, and illusions of stability.


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Jane Asher presents a particularly tasteful performance as Lady Kitty, and paired with the ill-tempered Lord Porteous (Nicholas Le Prevost), manages to convey a relationship founded – despite much apparent squabbling – on the touching bedrock of affection. Among the younger generation, Olivia Vinall deserves special praise for her flighty portrait of Elizabeth, reminiscent, it seems to me, of The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan. Yet for all their strengths, the group appears to undercut the seriousness of certain scenes with occasions for laughter. Moreover, the interruptions (by the butler, mainly) create absurdly long pauses in the action, which, despite beckoning some smiles, could be shortened without much loss.

"Olivia Vinall deserves special praise for her flighty portrait of Elizabeth"

At its core, The Circle is about reaching a hand through time. Yet the prevailing moral bankruptcy makes us wonder whether anyone will feel it as it probes gender roles, points to warnings, and satirises political aspiration. “We are the creatures of our environment,” utters Clive at one point. But even these sound-bites of wisdom get lost in a well of insignificance. This moral of the past, how can one live by it? Can constancy survive such changing circumstances? The Circle and its cast go a good way into answering these questions… But what to make of the void at its centre?

The Circle is showing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until the 27th of January.