Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Circle Mirror Transformation

Annie Baker
02 March 2018 to 17 March 2018

Premiered in New York eight years ago, much-lauded, award-winning American writer Annie Baker’s second play had its British premiere at the Royal Court five years ago and then disappeared off the scene until resurrected here by HOME. If it had been judged to have wide audience appeal, any play so highly praised by the critics that offers the financial appeal of a cast of five and one set, would, one might have thought, have been taken up more widely by the reps by now…

Baker is renowned for beady-eyed examinations of average individuals in their everyday lives in everyday small towns. Here, she follows the progress of a creative drama class, led by Marty (Amelia Bullmore) who intends it as a form of therapy for a group of two women and two men. Marty has them performing a variety of mind games, recounting each other’s life stories and digging into their various problems.

Short-ish scenes, punctuated by sudden total blackouts in the style that is currently quite popular (it is effective), also feature snatched relationships in the breaks between the therapy.

Marty keeps mostly cool. Her husband James (Anthony Ofoegbu), taking part not for the first time, is quietly undermining her.

Schultz (Con O’Neill) is a warm-hearted carpenter still trying to recover from a divorce; Teresa (Sian Clifford), a one-time actress, is trying to forget a controlling boyfriend, and Lauren (Yasmin Paige) is a teenager with problems at home but is attending the class under the impression that it will help her audition for the school play.

On one of the most solidly built sets you’ll ever see – a large room with mirrored walls in a community centre – the action takes place in an interval-less hour and three-quarters. And I have to say it seems a long sit.

I also have to say it is one of the very best performed, superbly directed (Bijan Sheibani) rep productions I have seen in a long time. It really is totally brilliant in execution in every way. But all of that technical expertise wasn’t enough, I’m afraid, to stop me clock watching from not very far in.

HOME doesn’t stage many home-grown productions – far, far, fewer than the Library Theatre, for which it is the replacement. I don’t know why.

And why they have chosen Circle Mirror Transformation as one of the few is also quite puzzling. I don’t think the play is anything like as interesting as it is claimed to be. Psychologically dubious, it skates over surfaces, doesn't reveal depths of character and is generally not very engaging.

The audience I was with, by no means filling the theatre, gave it a polite final reception, which is about right re the play, I think. But by golly I can’t emphasise enough just how brilliantly performed it all is.

Reviewer: Alan Hulme


Comment by David Cunningham

Certainly agree about the high quality of the acting but found the play something of a curate’s egg. The final scene , in which twilight gradually envelopes two characters as they realise that the unorthodox class might, after all, have had a point in working out their likely future direction, is exquisitely poignant. But the script also has moments that are distractingly contrived with a diagnosis of child abuse being made in seconds by someone unqualified to do so and on the basis of shaky evidence.