Drama classes, friendship and self-realisation: Circle Mirror Transformation and the life-changing power of theatre.

Melody Lewis 26 January 2022
Image Credit: Annie Baker

The scene is familiar to anyone acquainted with the awkward first meeting of a newly formed amateur dramatics club. Mumbled introductions pave the way for a week of shuffled pseudo-enthusiasm and what promises to be a painfully realistic rendition of the ins-and-outs of community funded ‘drama fun’.

As the oblivious teacher of this motley band of shy divorcees, reluctant teenagers, and long-suffering husbands, the middle-aged Marty (played with a perfect balance of empathy and tone-deaf enthusiasm by the wonderful Georgia Greig) tries, in vain, to inspire her ramshackle bunch to explore their innermost psychology as a prerequisite to emotionally honest acting. Yet the characters struggle with this, each bringing their own baggage to the class; and as the naïve but acutely aware high-school junior Lauren points out, it is not at all clear how any of this is going to help them become ‘real’ actors.

At the heart of this character-driven play is the message that theatre, in all its forms, is transformational in one way or another. As we watch the characters move through a six week ‘Adult Creative Drama’ class at the local community centre, we look on as they begin to unpack their reasons for attending, and journey with them as they learn how to communicate with each other in ways that show not only an increased understanding of human emotion, but also a newfound respect for their fellow classmates.

The intimate setting of the Corpus Playroom provided the perfect environment for such relationships to be explored, creating a sense of closeness and familiarity in which the audience felt not only part of the play, but also integral to the development of the characters’ stories throughout the narrative itself. While the setting was sparse, and at times felt a little sterile, perhaps lacking the organic clutter and chaos of an over-used and under-loved community centre room, the cast convincingly brought the space to life through their clever use of the Playroom’s unique stage and auditorium, creating a vital link between the audience and the characters themselves.

Despite the sensitivity and confidence with which the actors treated their roles, at times the play felt slightly chaotic, especially during the transitions between the different scenes. While the choice not to include total blackouts between scenes was bold, it left the stage in a fuzzy half-light as actors changed positions or left the scene, leaving some dialogues feeling unfinished, as if there was often more to be said, giving an overall sense that some scenes were slightly unpolished.

The real strength of this play lies in the cast. Each actor brought to life a uniquely difficult character, from Aine McNamara’s studied portrayal of the wannabe actress Teresa to Sarah Mulgrew’s scarily convincing stroppy high-schooler Lauren. The play at times felt to be lacking in textual meat yet the impeccable comedic timing of Tom Chandler as the fumblingly lovestruck carpenter Schultz and the inept emotional immaturity captured perfectly by Jonathan Powell’s awkward Brit-abroad James, brought a much needed injection of humour into the play which at times dealt with difficult topics such as abuse, infidelity, and the fear of rejection.

By far the most successful sequence of the play was the closing scene, in which Schultz and Lauren are asked to perform one final exercise. After six weeks together, the two characters imagine themselves ten years from now, as they meet by chance, and fall into the familiar stilted rigmarole of uncomfortable small talk. Yet as the scene progresses we watch the two characters interact more comfortably with one another, seeming even friendly towards each other. As the rest of the actors leave the stage, we remain with Schultz and Lauren as time seems to pass us slowly by, until we are unsure whether this scene is still the final imaginary drama club exercise or if we indeed have moved forward ten years into the future and are watching the conversation take place in real time. The choice to move from a harsh naturalistic wash to the faded haze of a spotlight highlighting only Lauren and Schultz was a stroke of genius from the lighting designer. The stage gets lost to the darkness, leaving only the two characters in our line of sight. As their conversation comes to an end and the spotlight fades to black, it feels like the perfect full-circle ending, closing this chapter of the characters’ lives as they move on, full of newfound confidence, to the next checkpoint in their respective adventures.

3/5

Circle Mirror Transformation will be running until Saturday 29th January 2022 as the Corpus Playroom Late Show – tickets are available from £7.50-£9 at https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/circle-mirror-transformation/