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Jane Asher: ‘If it’s wonderfully written then it will stand the test of time’

Having achieved something akin to national treasure status over the course of a long and successful career, actress, author and entrepreneur Jane Asher will soon be in Cambridge, taking on the lead role in the latest adaptation of The Circle, Somerset Maugham’s comedy of manners, which was first staged in 1921.

The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2023. Picture: Ellie Kurttz
The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2023. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

The play, performed last year at London’s Orange Tree theatre, where it received rave reviews, is on a UK tour at present and is due to stop off at the Cambridge Arts Theatre for a five-night run – plus three matinée showings – from next Tuesday (23 January).

“I genuinely never read reviews anymore,” reveals Jane – who first rose to prominence as a child actress in the 1952 film Mandy, going on to appear in such films as The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Alfie (1966), Deep End (1970) and Death at a Funeral (2007) – when asked if she feels any added pressure to live up to all the positive verdicts.

“I used to many years ago, and I learnt from another, very wise actor: just don’t read them. Even if they’re good, they can kind of throw you.

“You go on and think ‘Oh my God, this is the moment where I’m supposed to be brilliant, what did I do that was good?’ It’s very throwing, so I genuinely don’t read them.

“But of course naturally it filters through as to whether you’ve been a disaster or it’s gone well. So yes, I gather we got good reviews, which is lovely – and anyway we wouldn’t have been asked to take it on tour, of course, if it hadn’t done well.

“So whether it adds pressure? I don’t think any more than just wanting to do it as well as you possibly can; I mean there’s always huge pressure…

“I think maybe sometimes people think ‘Oh, you’ve done it a few times, you just reproduce it every night, every afternoon, whatever it is’, but of course it isn’t quite like that.

“We’re human beings, we’re not machines, and naturally either you discover something new, which is great and you slightly vary things, or even just to try and do the same thing again can get quite difficult.

“I mean you’re always trying; I think actors are quite sweet in that way! We’re always trying to be liked, basically, and there’s nothing like the response of an audience to make you feel ‘Oh, that’s good, they enjoyed that bit, they got it, the joke worked’ or ‘I can feel I made them sad in that sad bit’.

“So that’s the pressure, honestly, rather more than ‘yes, it got good reviews’. That’s really good for box office, it’s lovely if it does, but it’s not what we work for.”

The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2023. Picture: Ellie Kurttz
The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2023. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

What does the celebrated star of stage and screen like about touring?

“I love the places we’re going, I mean I’ve been to most of those on tour before,” she replies, “a lot of them are on a sort of circuit that you tend to do this kind of play at...

“It’s just fun to go to different places and different types of audience. I don’t think for The Circle they’ll vary tremendously; I think this kind of lovely, warm play with three oldies in it that they’ll know pretty well – I kind of know the sort of audience we’ll get, which will hopefully really enjoy it.

“So I don’t think we’ll be surprised by audience reactions, although you never know, but it’s just fun to travel around with a group of people and do something you love. Who wouldn’t like it?”

The other two “oldies” in the cast are Clive Francis, who plays Clive Champion-Cheney, and Nicholas Le Prevost, who takes on the role of Lord Porteous.

Jane Asher plays Lady Kitty (Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney).

“She’s a really wonderful character to play; she’s in her 60s at least, I think maybe even older than that, and she’s desperately tried to stay young – it’s very easy to get like that – mostly because when she was in her late 20s, and there’s a bit of vagueness with exactly how old she was, she ran away with her husband’s best friend, in the middle of a dinner party, leaving the husband and the five-year-old son behind,” says Jane.

“It was a hugely shocking event. Of course it’s still shocking now, to disappear without any warning with your husband’s best friend, but in those days [the 1920s] for a married woman to run away and live in sin, as it would have been called, was seriously shocking.

“So since then she has lived with her lover, because his wife wouldn’t divorce him so they could never get married, first in England where it was just so dreadful – the shunning of both of them by their so-called friends and the way they were treated – so they eventually ran away to Florence and lived there.

“They’ve had a very painful life in many ways. Whether they still love each other, we shall have to see, and interestingly, the son, who is now in his 30s, has married and his young wife, my character’s daughter-in-law, is thinking of doing exactly the same thing that Lady Kitty did all those years ago. She too has fallen in love with someone else and is thinking of running away with him.

“When we realise what this daughter-in-law is thinking of doing, it’s a question of whether they will they do exactly what Lady Kitty did and will Lady Kitty and the lover be on their side, or say, ‘For God’s sake don’t do it, look what’s happened to us’?

“It’s a fabulous plot and obviously a really interesting character, because she appears to be a certain type of very shallow, frivolous woman, and has obviously been through hell for all these years, but as the play progresses we see another, slightly deeper side of her, so it’s a wonderful character to play.”

The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2023. Picture: Ellie Kurttz
The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2023. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

The mention of Lady Kitty and her lover running away to Italy brought to mind the character of Lord Marchmain from Brideshead Revisited, who in the novel was living in Venice with his mistress, Cara.

Jane appeared in the much-loved 1981 television adaptation of one of Evelyn Waugh’s most popular works, as Charles Ryder’s wife Lady Celia Ryder (Charles, of course, was famously played by Jeremy Irons).

“That was a lovely character too,” reflects the experienced actress. “I mean in some ways she was vaguely similar to Lady Kitty, although I think Celia was probably more genuinely shallow than Lady Kitty because Lady Kitty actually has much more depth to her than we at first see.

“But Celia I think was very socially-minded and a really annoying woman – but I loved playing her. The thing about playing somebody like Celia, who is really irritating, is that you’ve got to like her yourself, you’ve got to see her point of view, and I got really annoyed about the fact that my husband was flirting with this other woman on board the QE2, or whatever it may be, and it’s really good to get into a character and see the side of it from their point of view, which I think you have to try and do.”

Jane notes that she has been familiar with The Circle for some time.

“I was asked to do it quite a few years ago and couldn’t because I was involved in something else,” she recalls, “and I fell in love with the play then – I’m a great Somerset Maugham fan, of his novels and his stage plays.

“So I knew the play pretty well and when I first read it, I thought ‘This is just a fantastic character, I’d love to play her’. He writes so beautifully, so simply, in a kind of way that would have taken hours of work. He writes so well that you can see exactly, I think, what that character is.

“Obviously you explore it more in rehearsal but it’s one that I was longing to slip into and inhabit, so to speak, and certainly Tom [Littler, director] I think felt exactly the same way I did about this character as soon as we started talking about it.”

Why has the play, which is now more than 100 years old, stood the test of time?

“Because with anything that’s wonderfully written, whether it’s music or it’s drama or it’s fiction novels, I think they always last, even if the subject doesn’t apply in exactly the same way,” replies Jane, who reveals that Somerset Maugham said that The Circle was his favourite out of all the plays he’d written,

“Thank heavens nowadays if people fall in love and leave their husband or wife and run off, they’re not going to be considered pariahs for the rest of their lives, which they would have been then – particularly the woman.

“So that, thank heavens, has changed; the position of women in general has of course changed dramatically – and, as Lady Kitty keeps saying in the play, in those days if you were ‘living in sin’ with a man and ‘kept’ by him financially, as she would have been, then you had no power of your own at all, and even in her marriage there’s no way she could run away without support.

“She would have been kept by her husband totally, she’d have no way of earning her own living, and in that way although things don’t apply in the same way – you could say that about Shakespeare or anything – I think the feelings and the characters and an exciting plot will last forever.

“So that’s why I think Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward... there’s so many of that era that will be popular as long as you and I can imagine.”

Actors who have appeared in numerous films and TV series over many years, like Ms Asher has, sometimes say that theatre is always their first love, but Jane is not so sure.

“It’s hard to say,” she admits. “If I’ve been in a very long run for many, many months then I and lots of other actors tend to think ‘I’ll never do theatre again, I would love to go into a studio, work in the daytime and go home at night, or whatever’, but I wouldn’t want to give up any of them, ideally.

“I certainly miss theatre terribly if I don’t do it for some time – there’s nothing like doing it to a live audience and trying to improve it every night or find new things, so I would hate to ever feel I couldn’t do any more.

“But first love? I don’t know, I love all of them in their own ways... In this play I’m working with two actors obviously at the same sort of level age-wise as I am and I’ve been Clive’s wife I think three times now, maybe four, and Nick’s twice so we know each other pretty well!

“That’s always really nice, when you know your fellow actors so well.”

So what can audiences hope for? “From the reactions we had at the Orange Tree, it’s a fantastically enjoyable evening – it’s very, very funny and it’s very touching. What more can you ask for?” says Jane, who adds: “I love the Cambridge Arts, I’ve been there many times, and I hope our audience there enjoys it.

I think they will – from my experience of Cambridge, I think it’s right up their street. They’re very intelligent, perceptive people there, of course.”

The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2023. Picture: Ellie Kurttz
The Circle at the Orange Tree Theatre, London, in 2023. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

The Circle begins its five-day run at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on Tuesday, 23 January, at 7.30pm each day. There will also be performances at 2.30pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Tickets, priced £25-£45, are available by visiting cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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