Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Theatre review: Circle Mirror Transformation

Although it's finished in the Royal Court's building itself, the Open Court season lives on via the venue's occasional Theatre Local strand, which has two offerings this year. The Rose Lipman Building is a community centre in Haggerston, which I'm reliably informed is the next area due to get gentrified. (Seems a bit lazy to me - I thought hipsters were supposed to seek out surprising new places to proclaim cool, not just move one Overground station down when they overflow from Dalston.) If the surroundings aren't (yet) that glamorous, a starry cast makes for a big draw instead to Annie Baker's unusual but addicitive Circle Mirror Transformation. The Jerwood Upstairs seating has been brought into a mirrored studio in the East London community centre, which stands in for a similar space in Vermont where hippyish Marty (Imelda Staunton) has convinced the centre to let her run a 6-week acting class for adults. The fact that she's only got four students, one of whom is her husband James (Danny Webb,) isn't going to dull her enthusiasm.

The rest of the class includes the monosyllabic teenager Lauren (Shannon Tarbet,) who's hoping the class will give her a chance at Maria in her school's production of West Side Story next semester, and is disappointed to discover how little actual acting the class involves. There's also Therea (Fenella Woolgar,) a newcomer to the town who fled New York when her relationship ended, and within a couple of weeks has hooked up with older divorcee Schultz (Toby Jones.)


Circle Mirror Transformation is made up of very short scenes that dip into the classes, almost entirely consisting of Marty's drama exercises. The only moments we see the participants theoretically being themselves is in brief flashes of their 10-minute break. But what's clever about Baker's writing, and something James Macdonald's production taps right into, is the way the (often embarrassing) drama games reveal not just the character but the development of their story as the weeks go on and they get to know each other. The class might not be much use for their acting prospects, but many of them find a new strength from it - while others' apparently stable lives are left exposed.


One conceit that cleverly brings the five to life is that every week one of them will take on the persona of another and introduce themselves to the group, quickly establishing much about both the character being described and the one doing the describing. But even the more playground-like memory games are imbued with subtlety by the cast, who find every nuance in the writing.


Much of what the characters do is cringeworthy, both in terms of how terrible some of Marty's acting exercises are, and in the kinds of thing they end up, willingly or inadvertently, sharing. So there's a lot of laughs to be had but also many real moments of poignancy. This was one of those pieces of theatre that I found myself simultaneously invested in emotionally and enjoying as a technical exercise in oblique storytelling. Macdonald and his cast all do sterling work, but what stands out the most is Baker's writing style, and her masterclass in cutting to the heart of a subject by circling around it.

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker is booking until the 3rd of August at the Rose Lipman Building, Haggerston (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes straight through.

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