“When are we going to start acting?”
Whilst Vicky Featherstone has turned over the keys of the Royal Court’s Sloane Square home for the Open Court festival, the more traditional business of regular plays continues with Circle Mirror Transformation. But even this strains against convention, taking place under their (pre-existing) Theatre Local umbrella and introducing its audience to stations and areas such as Haggerston and De Beauvoir Town in North-East London. Annie Baker’s award-winning 2009 play takes place in a community centre in the small town of Shirley, Vermont and to replicate that feel, James Macdonald’s production takes place in the bona fide environment of the Rose Lipman community arts building, lending a veneer of authenticity that would never have been possible either upstairs or down back in SW1W.
Baker’s trick here is to take us through the six weeks of a creative drama class and visit how the five people who sign up react to the therapeutic intentions of course leader Marty, For they all have issues to deal with, Marty included, and through the breathing exercises, word-association games and self-revealing acting techniques they learn, they all edge closer to an emotional breakthrough. The undoubted charms of this play ripple gently across the hall, washing over us quietly with its perceptive take on the ways in which people respond to personal turmoil, turning to others in time of need yet using them for entirely different means.
Schultz, a recently divorced chair-maker, and Theresa, an actress just relocated from NYC, are both struggling to deal with the baggage that comes with imploding relationships; 16 year old Lauren is escaping the trouble that dominates her family home; and Marty’s own marriage to James, who is also taking the class, is facing its own battles against wilful step-daughters and hidden secrets. And the playwright teases so much of this information out in the most ingenious of ways, through the games that they play in class, through the mouths of others as they describe their colleagues and re-enact important moments from their lives.
It seems a shame then that she doesn’t quite have the courage of her convictions to go the whole hog with this format and she slowly introduces scenes of dialogue bookending the classes which tell us more but also dilute its unique feel. But when it works, which it frequently does, the subtle undercurrents pull us with a surprisingly effective force, driven by one of the best assembled casts of the year. Toby Jones is a comic revelation as Schultz, a man who try as he might cannot overcome his complete lack of creative imagination but who recognises another bruised soul in Theresa and sets about an ill-advised yet painfully hilariously observed liaison with her.
The ever-excellent Fenella Woolgar shines as the fragilely vivacious Theresa, her confidence outwardly bright yet scarcely masking the pain inside; Shannon Tarbet’s sharp-eyed Lauren emerges gracefully from her recalcitrant shell; and Danny Webb bubbles with unreconciled feeling as his dissatisfaction with life becomes increasingly hard to hide. And at the centre of them all, Imelda Staunton’s Marty is extraordinary – steely determination when it comes to the activities and all motherly encouragement in getting her charges to participate but it is in the moments when she isn’t talking that one is reminded how superb an actress she really is, her face conveying so much about the depths of her private despair.
The play’s outlook is necessarily intimate, the world that is created hardly ever escapes the confines of the community centre’s hall but that doesn’t really feel the point. It’s about the everyday realities of dealing with such things as emotional inarticulacy, depression, isolation, and finding it within oneself to make the choices to move on, to try and recognise the potential of something new. As such, it also feels like an impassioned paean for the nurturing of adult education as an integral part of an enrichened society, not just for the arts but across all subjects, something to be protected rather than identified as an easy cut to make for budgets under pressure.