There is a moment, possibly at the almost exact halfway mark, when Lauren (Shannon Tarbet) asks Marty (Imelda Staunton), ‘When do we do any real acting?’ Having watched this two hour, no interval production in stifling temperatures whilst sat in brutally unforgiving seats, it is a question that the audience may feel inclined to agree with. For all the virtues of bringing together a Grade A cast, one cannot escape the fact that this is Grade C play.
Annie Baker’s ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ is set in a Vermont community acting class but it brings with it the self-empowered yippie culture of 1970’s west coast America. Marty, in her wool knit and chunky jewellery, is the very embodiment of the self-actualised individual. Schultz’s (Toby Jones) gift of a dream catcher is perhaps the most apt moment of the play, as there is little that sums up the vacuous, self-obsessed, false spirituality of the new age drama teacher than the appropriation of a native American child’s mobile.
Another Annie looms large over the production; for those lucky enough to have caught Annie Griffin’s (The Book Group) Coming Soon, this play pales in the face of that bleak, biting satire of the am-dram scene. Griffin has a talent for making you watch deeply unsympathetic character and feel real emotion at their travails.
Baker on the other hand cannot resist softening out the production and removing the acidity built out of competition that is the life blood of am-dram groups up and down the country. It feels that Baker cannot let go of the baby boomer, new age, west coast inspired warmth. She introduces flawed characters and plot lines that create tension and division but doesn’t seem able to let them run naturally, and instead the guiding hand of the playwright is far to evident throughout.
Criticisms of the play aside it must be stated that with a cast this good it really is hard to stop watching. The cast don’t just lift the play, they are the play and they are, in the most literal drama sense, at play. For anyone who has experienced the hermetically sealed world of amateur theatre there is an undeniable pleasure in watching professional actors go through the same exercises that you will have done many times over.
The actors may not be stretched but they all bring something to their respective roles. Having waited a long time to see Toby Jones onstage, it must be admitted that I had hoped for a rather more powerhouse role but he is still utterly believable as Schultz, the slightly awkward, divorced. He is one of the great character actors of our time and one hopes that this is the start of a transition to an increased amount of stage work.
One suspects that Staunton, like Jones, could play Marty in her sleep. The sheer talent of Staunton and Danny Webb, as her husband, bring forth the play’s one moment of real transcendence; a reaction to a tableaux improvisation surrounding Lauren’s own family that draws forth a moment of epiphany in their own relationship.
The surprise package is Tarbet’s Lauren; in her own understated way she has found a winning depth in the shy teenager, who at heart is the misfit who wants to embrace drama as an escape from the real world only to find that drama itself doesn’t hold the key to happiness.
Setting the play in a community centre is a nice touch and hopefully will encourage local residents to come and see it. However it is questionable how much of the knowing winks and nudges to drama games will mean to someone who doesn’t have a passing knowledge of the world of amateur drama; indeed it is entirely possible that it will do little more than reinforce existing preconceptions.
Would I recommend this play without this cast? No. Would I recommend seeing this cast in any play? Absolutely.