There are some theatre directors who seem to have a better sense of time and space than others. James Macdonald is one of them. He uses the relativity of time and space to conjure exquisite theatrical effects, which is a pretentious way of describing something that's actually quite simple. Long Pinteresque pauses give the audience the chance to mentally frame and anticipate one character's response to another's probing remark. Subtle variations in pace work wonders in teasing out the meaning of a script and mining the subtext. Variations in space and movement can do the same. Anyone who's ever done a drama class knows that sitting or standing in isolation facing a line of other people is a different experience from sitting or standing in a more friendly circle.
Circle Mirror Transformation by American playwright Annie Baker is a Royal Court production in a highly unusual place -- a semi-derelict community centre on a council estate in Hackney, as part of a project called Theatre Local which takes plays out of the theatre and into places where people live. Well, you can take the play out of Sloane Square but you can't take Sloane Square out of the audience, unfortunately. On Saturday afternoon local residents of the De Beauvoir estate were few and far between, and the audience seemed to composed of the usual Royal Court suspects - people like me.
Given a top-notch cast of five, a cleverly written script that delivers mostly through subtext rather than overt statements, an ideal setting in a plain multipurpose community hall, and a director of Macdonald's gifts, it's no surprise that this show is a cracker. It lasts just under two hours without a break and I loved every minute of it.
The premise is simple; five people in a small town in Vermont meet for a drama class once a week for six weeks. Each class is broken up into quite short scenes, so the action isn't continuous. Anyone who's ever done a drama course of any kind will immediately recognise what's going on. From Vermont to London's South Bank, the group exercises are pretty much the same. Lie on your back and count upwards from one to ten, but don't speak at the same moment as anyone else. Improvise scenes of dialogue using a single word. 'Goulash' will do. Split into pairs and tell the rest of the group not your own story, but that of your partner. Write a secret on a piece of paper, fold it up and allow someone else to read it aloud, anonymously.
Schultz (Toby Jones), middle-aged and crushed by his recent divorce, comes on to Teresa (Fenella Woolgar), an actress who is ten years younger than him and has recently split up with her boyfriend. Lauren (Shannon Tarbet) is just sixteen and wants to get the lead part in a high school production of West Side Story. Marty (Imelda Staunton), the hippyish class leader, and her husband James (Danny Webb) make up the rest of the group.
The acting is outstanding. Tarbet is a new face to me, as I missed seeing her in Anya Reiss's highly praised Spur of the Moment at the Royal Court. I also missed out on seeing her in Mogadishu. She has an extraordinary stillness and intensity which makes her portrayal of a character who is quiet and introverted completely plausible.
Danny Webb gave an unforgettable performance as Samantha Spiro's stage husband in Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court. Here he's equally good as Staunton's husband, trying to patch up the cracks in a marriage that turns out to be a lot less solid than it appears as the drama course moves from week to week. Fenella Woolgar's Teresa is the superficially extroverted member of the group, who lives her emotional life in public. And Toby Jones, playing a man for whom every word about himself and every moment of participation is a struggle, is magnificent. Unfortunately this show is only on for one more week until August 3, but I highly recommend it.