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Review: The Circle at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

On this week at the Cambridge Arts Theatre is The Circle, a 1921 play by Somerset Maugham – a hugely successful pre-war and inter-war writer, who at one point had four plays running simultaneously in the West End.

I’m a huge fan of these on-the-surface-rather-quaint-but-with-a-darker-underbelly – and often very funny – old English plays set in a country house, of the type also made famous by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward, and when I spoke to the play’s star Jane Asher a few weeks ago she succeeded in ‘selling’ it to me further (as if I needed convincing!).

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 story involves Ms Asher’s character, Lady Kitty (Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney), a society beauty who notoriously abandoned her husband Clive and eloped with the handsome Lord Porteous some 30 years previously, returning to see the son she left behind when he was just five years old.

As an example of history repeating itself, Arnold faces a similar marital fate, as his wife Elizabeth has fallen in love with the dashing Teddie Luton and is threatening to run away with him.

The play gets off to a solid start with the characters gradually being introduced to the audience, within the setting of a beautifully-decorated country house and harmonious sound effects that mimic the unforgettable noises of an English summer – birdsong, etc.

Clive Francis, who plays Clive Champion-Cheney, the husband Kitty left all those years ago, recently appeared at the same venue, playing Sir Humphrey Appleby, in Jonathan Lynn’s I’m Sorry, Prime Minister, I Can’t Quite Remember.

I very much enjoyed him in that and I very much enjoyed him in this, his relaxed demeanour and early ‘sparring’ with ‘love rival’ Lord ‘Hughie’ Porteous (an excellent Nicholas Le Prevost) as barbed as it was funny.

Olivia Vinall is delightful as the charming and somewhat innocent Elizabeth Champion-Cheney, Arnold’s wife, and Pete Ashmore is perfectly cast as the rather distant but well-meaning Arnold. Daniel Burke also succeeds in capturing the ‘bon vivant’ spirit of the roguish Teddie Luton.

It takes a while for Jane Asher to appear but when she does, her character has some of the best lines, as she moves through the emotional gears of sadness, regret, reflection and finally acceptance – and then fear that her daughter-in-law is about to make the same mistake she did.

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 formal costumes – Ms Asher’s in particular – drew gasps from the audience at the start of the second half, due to their refined elegance, as the story continued.

There were laugh-out-loud moments, tinged with sadness, and the ending when it came was not what I had been expecting, which is always good.

There are sometimes moments during plays where I get a bit bored and my mind starts to wander, but the impressive performances of the cast and the steadily-paced narrative and often very witty dialogue meant that that didn’t happen.

If you enjoy the work of Maugham, Wilde, Coward and the like, then this is certainly the play for you – or if you just fancy taking in a very well-told story with a top-notch cast on a cold January night, then The Circle is also extremely worthy of your time.

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

The Circle is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday (27 January). Tickets, priced £25-£45, are available from cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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