“Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker

at the Rose Lipman Building, Wednesday 24th July 2013

At the risk of being reductive, I realised during Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation that many plays and their productions can be reduced to three aspects; the core idea which drives the piece, the content of the play itself and its subsequent execution. In the case of CMT, the first and last of these three tenets are fulfilled brilliantly, allowing Baker to explore themes of the purpose of theatre and the consuming power of time in an extraordinarily simple way. Throughout, however, I couldn’t help feeling that though we had strong bones and a beautiful exterior, the flesh itself was not quite meaty enough.*

In a community centre, five people are playing a focus exercise at the beginning of a six-week course. They aren’t very good at it, but it allows their teacher Marty (Imelda Staunton) to move onto other games, including speaking a monologue as another person in the class and going round in a circle speaking one word at a time to make a story. As the weeks pass, they slowly become more accomplished at game-playing, but the relationships within the group are put under a little pressure as secrets are shared and boundaries are broken.

The group is made up of Marty, her husband James (Danny Webb), ex-actress and recently-single Theresa (Fenella Woolgar), chair-maker and divorcee Schultz (Toby Jones) and sixteen-year old Lauren (Shannon Tarbet). They are all there for different reasons – Lauren, for example, wants to use the sessions to improve her acting – but ultimately they all find that their time there is useful in itself for helping them find a clearer sense of who they are as people.

So, let’s start with ‘the idea’. Baker’s play is, in her own words, “a strange little meditation on theatre and life and death and the passage of time”, and this, unsurprisingly, is about right. By using the backdrop of an adult drama class – which often strays into territory of drama therapy – the play is able to examine how theatre manifests itself in our everyday realities and the ways in which it can be best used to understand ourselves. The structure also allows Baker to contemplate how quickly things can change in our lives and the moments of flux when everything can seem up for grabs.

But I often felt disappointed by the text itself. Drama exercises which are used to introduce characters start to feel a little worn as the two hours wear on and its often very clear where things are heading. When James and Marty have a heated discussion, for example, it [*Spoiler alert*] becomes fairly clear that the relationship isn’t going to last much longer, and from the very first failed concentration game at the beginning, we know that by the end the group is going to be able to count to ten.

I’ve also got to the stage where relationships – as in one person falling in love with another person – don’t really bother me. We’ve see these kind of stories played out hundreds of times before, and though their presentation and structuring here is a little innovative, I think I’d much rather just see people interacting and relationships forming from that without letting ‘love’ get in the way. Because, let’s be honest, to have four people in a class of five have some kind of romantic relationship with another is a bit far-fetched.

Having said this, however, I did love James Macdonald’s production. And I laughed the whole way through. A lot. There’s something about the community centre setting of the Rose Lipman Building which is incredibly heartening, putting everyone at ease as we watch this piece play out. Watching Imelda Staunton’s reactions to a particularly peculiar bit of improvisation and the wry awkwardness of Toby Jones become all the more hilarious in this open, warm environment (though I do wonder whether the end-on seating arrangement is a bit too conventional for the play). Silences are beautifully observed, and the tiniest of glimpses has the power to delight.

The cast are all completely bewitching too, though it never really feels like anyone is really pushing themselves; in keeping with the production, everyone has been cast very much to type so that nothing really unexpected comes from them. Except Tarbet, who for me gives the stand-out performance. Throughout the majority of the piece, she remains quiet, sitting in corners and failing to truly engage. Within the final few weeks, however, she begins to come out of her shell and takes control. The funniest moment comes in a one-word-story game, when she makes a jibe at Theresa’s failed acting career, implying that she should return home if she really wanted to pursue her dream (the brilliance of the delivery here comes from the fact that Tarbet seems to begin by referring to herself before subverting the idea with a joy which clearly niggles Woolgar). In the final few moments of the piece – which, to my mind, are its strongest – we see her physically and mentally grow up, as the imagining-your-future game for her becomes a reality and we see the complete transformation in her character; though the lives of the other four have fallen apart, she has maintained dignity and managed to turn things around for herself. This is her play.

*I’d just like to point out that this is a metaphor gone awry, not an advocacy of cannibalism.

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