'Circle Mirror Transformation' review or 'Anyone for a game of spilikins?'

‘Circle Mirror Transformation’, Annie Baker
Rose Lipman Building (Theatre Local season)
Written for Culture Wars

Five people lie on the floor of a studio, counting up to ten. The scattered bodies look like spilikins, randomly distributed yet crucially interlinked. These five people are playing a drama game, in which they must count to ten without speaking over each other. The silences between the spoken numbers throb with meaning; they are filled with anxiety, hope, frustration and a deep desire to access each other’s inner thoughts.

It’s a cracking scene – one that fizzes with energy and immediacy and all sorts of subtle revelations about the characters involved. Annie Barker’s compelling play, which plays with and prowls around reality, is packed with similar drama games. It’s set in the summertime in Vermont, where five characters – including teacher Marty (Imelda Staunton; smart, sparky and so reachable) - have gathered for a drama course. All the characters are a little lost and hoping to escape their lives for a while. This play is about what they find whilst they’re looking in the opposite direction.

Staunton could’ve easily slipped into caricature, as the ex-hippy drama teacher who just wants everyone to be happy – but her performance, though superficially funny, is so rich that one can see the child her character once was, the old lady she will eventually become. Staunton sets the tone of this piece and it is one of strained optimism and pooling panic. There’s a wistfulness to her character, which suggests that a part of her that is always absent, preoccupied with secret concerns.

Initially, the drama games are light-hearted and very silly. The students walk around the room, responding to Marty’s commands. ‘Start noticing everyone around you!, says Marty, and everyone stops, looks and stares. At the moment, they are only observing on a superficial level.

With just a few classy touches, director James Macdonald embellishes the play’s embedded themes.  The production takes place in a community centre in Haggerston, so the lighting is crude. Macdonald embraces this limitation and transforms the necessary snap blackouts into a sixth characters in the room. A drama exercise ends badly and Marty peps up the group, ‘Try again!’ The light snaps shut, encouraging us to laugh. But as the drama exercises build in intensity, the black outs begin to feel a tad malicious; they are the doubts in these characters heads, dreams dying and youth vanishing.

Macdonald also lights up the door to the studio, before the scenes begin. The modest little gym, stripped bare except for a hula hoop and exercise ball, glows red with the light of the Exit sign. It is a neat little touch, which hints at the escape that all these characters are looking for.  

Recently divorced chap, Schultz (Toby Jones – so focused that he basically glows) is asked to do an exercise with Theresa (Fenella Woolgar), with whom he has had a brief fling. The couple must repeat two lines: ‘I need you to stay/Well, I want to go.’ This might sound horrifically forced, but the simplicity and emotional honestly of it all stops the device from feeling too manufactured. The intensity that Jones pours into just one line – I need you to stay – is frightening and horribly sad.  

All the drama games begin to shimmer with double, triple truths. Baker sets up the most potent of role play exercises and dares the truth to wriggle free. Marty and her straying husband, James (Danny Webb), mimic young student Lauren’s parents and little flickers of their own anger spark up. James and Theresa share a conversation in gobbledy gook and a not-so–secret heat flares up between them. Marty recites a monologue about Lauren’s life and the missing mother figure, which Lauren (Shannon Tarbet) so palpably desires, hovers about the gym.

The games also play with the idea of memory and lost time. At one point, Schultz tries to get the actors to represent his childhood bedroom. Theresa waves about like a maple tree, James pretends to be the bed and Marty curls up like a cuddly toy. The end result is absurd. ‘That doesn’t really look like my bedroom’, Schultz quietly objects. It is such a sad moment, filled with the certainty of life passing. Things move on and there is nothing – no game and no imagination in the world – that will get those moments back again.

The ideas and people and love that we lose as time passes is like a sad scent that clings – very faintly – to Baker’s play. Sometimes that transience is comforting – at other times, deeply depressing. Drama sits awkwardly and intriguingly in between this comfort and sorrow. Acting is, after all, an attempt to capture what has long since passed; an effort to identify life and hold it aloft. As Baker beautifully reveals in an aching final scene, drama is something we take part in every day, whether we realise it or not; ‘I don’t know. I guess I feel like my life is pretty real.’