Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Circle

Somerset Maugham
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2008)

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Maugham was a great observer of humanity with all its faults and idiosyncrasies and, although this play was first performed in 1921 and the language may be somewhat dated (not many men now would court a girl with the words “You’re a ripping good sort”), human nature doesn’t change and the characters are meticulously and accurately drawn.

Jonathan Church, in his third and again very successful year as Artistic Director at Chichester, has here directed a superbly comic production, and kept the language as written, making no fun of it. The comedy is in the relationships between the characters and the witty pertinent dialogue – rattled out at high speed at the beginning, but soon settling down as the plot develops and the personalities of the characters are revealed.

Simon Higlett has designed a stunning set of a very elegant and stylish drawing room, fitting for an ambitious politician – Arnold Champion-Cheney - who intends to have “one of the show houses of the county”, and Richard Lintern demonstrates the pernickety nature of this man, constantly twitching ornaments and chairs back to their precise original position. His life is well ordered, well planned, and little does he know that his wife is considering embarking on an affair.

Affairs are not new in this family. When he was only five years old Arnold’s mother abandoned him and went to live in Italy with her rich lover, but she is about to return for the first time in thirty years. What advice might she give to her daughter-in-law, and is history about to repeat itself with events coming full circle?

Susan Hampshire played daughter-in-law Elizabeth at Chichester in 1976 and now returns to play the errant wife, Kitty, with what might well be the performance of her career, lighting up the stage whenever she appears. “Her soul is as rouged as her face” remarks her disgruntled lover as he watches her flamboyant and extravagant gestures – a woman clinging to her glamorous life and trying desperately to stay young.

Philip Voss is the lover, politician Lord Porteous, previously the best friend of Kitty’s husband, and he has some wonderful expressions – one look communicating his feelings more that pages of dialogue could do. Constantly having trouble with his false teeth, grumbling about everything, and arguing with Kitty over the bridge table suggests that life with this capricious woman is not all he had hoped.

Interestingly, when Elizabeth asks Kitty for advice she insists that the main requirement for a woman must be money. Although Maugham’s experiences with women had not been happy ones, he was sympathetic with the fact that women might have been given the vote at last but were very rarely financially independent.

A benign David Yelland, as the deserted husband, watches all that is going on with amusement – very happy in his bachelorhood, but also very happy that his presence could be causing embarrassment, and Charity Wakefield as bored wife Elizabeth, together with Bertie Carvel’s besotted would-be lover Edward Luton, complete the main characters in an excellent cast.

A very enjoyable, entertaining and humorous social satire, expertly crafted, superbly performed and – one final observation – the women’s gowns are to die for – worth the price of admission alone.

In repertory, until 29th August

Reviewer: Sheila Connor