In the 1950s, a movement called the Angry Young Men revolutionized British theatre with realistic plays about working class life. Their enemy was the dominant old-school: drawing room comedies by the likes of Somerset Maugham, where lords and ladies sipped sherry in country houses, said “by George” and “beastly,” and worried over their marital infidelities.
Maybe it’s our tough economic times or just that everything old is new again. But Somerset Maugham is making a comeback. In January Morris Panych will direct Maugham’s marital comedy The Constant Wife for the Arts Club. This month United Players kicks off the Maugham season with Adam Henderson’s solidly amusing production of The Circle.
Written in 1921, The Circle takes place in the drawing room of the Champion-Cheney country house where straitlaced Arnold (Noel Johansen) and his romantic wife Elizabeth (Alexis Kellum-Creer) are entertaining handsome, dashing Teddy (Jesse Donaldson) and Arnold’s jolly old dad, Clive (Don Glossop). The plot thickens with the arrival of flamboyant Lady Kitty (Andrée Karas), Arnold’s mother, and her irascible companion, Lord Porteous (Glen Pinchin). Kitty scandalized civilized society thirty years earlier by leaving her marriage to run off with Porteous. And now Elizabeth wants to do the same: dump husband Arnold for a life of adventure with Teddy.
Comedy of manners dominates the play’s first act. Karas and Pinchin hold centre stage with delightful portrayals of self-absorbed Kitty (Clive calls her “a silly, worthless woman”) and exasperated Porteous, his natural grumpiness aggravated by some very funny business with false teeth. Teddy tempts Elizabeth to run off with him by telling her, “I think you’re such a ripping good sort!”
The second act takes a fascinating turn towards serious social issues. Kitty and Porteous reveal the prices they had to pay for their infidelities, and Kitty raises compelling questions about the institution of marriage and the economic vulnerability of women. She doesn’t seem so silly talking about her fear of growing old and grotesque.
Elizabeth has to reconsider her notions of romantic love. Maybe she’d better be pragmatic, even if it means staying with a husband like Arnold who believes that a man marries “because he doesn’t want to be bothered with sex and that sort of thing.” The play begins to look like a reworking of Ibsen’s Doll’s House but the ending offers a series of ironic surprises.
Henderson’s cast meets the demands of Maugham’s stylized acting pretty successfully and Kyla Gardiner’s period costumes provide a visual treat.
No one will ever mistake Maugham for an angry young man but his version of a mildly Roaring Twenties provides an awfully decent distraction from our generation’s economic apocalypse, by George.