American am-dram gets an undeserved A-list treatment

Circle Mirror Transformation – Royal Court @ The Rose Lipman Community Centre, until 03 August 2013

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.

Circle Mirror Transformation - Imelda Staunton (credit and copyright Stephen Cummiskey, 2013)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 the 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 runs through am-dram 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.

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.

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Musical Theatre: Comparing old with new

Last week I had the somewhat dubious pleasure of sampling two musicals. One is a scathing social satire on contemporary values whereas the other is a gruesome tale of revenge that ends in a bloodbath for all concerned. One is a complex work that draws on recurring classical motifs whilst the other takes a magpie approach to the classic styles of twentieth century musicals. One is regarded as one of the great musicals by a legend in his field. The other has been championed by Lorraine Kelly. But are we letting reputations get ahead of us?

In the interests of fairness, Civilian Theatre has assessed the merits of both shows to see whether Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the perennially popular Stephen Sondheim musical that won rave reviews at the Chichester Festival last year and has since transferred to the West End, is really any better than WAG! The Musical, which was enjoying its world premiere at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow.

So there you have it, a win for the WAGS. The colossus of Broadway has been brought to his knees by some upstart wives of footballers. As any sportsman knows – the stats don’t lie. WAG! the musical has proved itself every inch the equal of Sweeney Todd and Sondheim (lyricist for West Side Story, Academy Award Winner, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Winner of 8 Tony’s, 8 Grammy’s and 6 Olivier Awards and with a theatre named after him) clearly has been humbled by a new challenger for the crown.

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Sweeney Todd

Editors Note: Apologies to Mr Sondheim for the misspelt Sweeney in the above article. If I hadn’t been moved close to despair by uploading gremlins then the amendment would have been made.