THE CIRCLE Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond SW

WHEN DIVORCE WAS DISASTER

    It’s 1921.    Thirty years ago Lady Kitty ran out on her MP husband Clive and small son with his friend and colleague Hughie,  exploding a public scandal of contested divorce , denied access, two wrecked political careers and  – for the guilty couple – exile in the marbled splendours of a palazzo in Florence (with inadequate plumbing, we learn, and the company of ruined women and rogues). 

         Now the pair are back and briefly  staying  in the old family home  – alongside another of the younger generation,  the  planter Teddy on leave from the Colonies and lounging in anyone-for-tennis whites.   The old house is now curated with prissy effeminacy by Clive’s  son Arnold, himself an MP, and his wife Elizabeth.   It was her idea , gripped by dangerous ideas of reuniting her husband  with the  mother he hardly knew, and of bonding  with a romantic silver-haired wise woman  who gave all for love.    Which may be connected with her own yearning for Teddy.   So enter – bickering –  Nicholas le Prevost as Hughie,   grumbling about his false teeth, and Jane Asher as Kitty,   no wise greyhair but a thoroughly rouged coquette well past her prime,  with hair of hellish metallic ginger brilliance (Elizabeth’s, of course, is natural auburn).   Rascally old Clive, of course, pops up from his cottage in the grounds to cause all possible trouble in his son’s menage. Why not?  Clive Francis is sneakily wonderful in the role, fancying himself as a slyly wicked old roué,   dismayed only at the risk that his wife might come back.  

       It is fly of Tom Littler, fresh from his last leadership at the Jermyn, to launch his time here with this neglected Somerset Maugham play: domestic  comedy with typical Maugham undertow of real, almost sadistic, pain.  It’s a well constructed emotional drawing-room thriller with sharp epigrams ” “even when men are in love, they’re not in love all day long”  and  the kind of passionate rants modern actors rarely get to loose off.  Its world of tempted wives, trapped responsibility,  unthinkable divorce ,  enjoyable cynicism  and troubling passion  is poised somewhere between Wilde and Coward:   between Lady Windermere and Elyot-and-Amanda.

      With, as this is Maugham, an added spice of imperialism: when Teddy , a low-voiced and intense Chirag Benedict Lobo, tells Elizabeth about his house on a Malaysian hillside beneath  hot palm trees she is fascinated, a home counties rabbit before a cobra’s eye, rooks and cuckoos calling in the garden. Casting a glamorous Indian rather than a gungho public schoolboy really works.   And the fading imperial era is nicely guyed when the two old politicians argue about where if in power they would have sent Kitty as vicereine , she explodes with disgust at Western Australia or Barbados, and cries “I want India!”

         Jane Asher has great fun with all this as Kitty, but alongside the triumphant vanity catches beautifully the sense of trapped affluent femininity in a world where a safe man – one properly tied to you by marriage – was the only guarantee of comfort/. When she tells Olivia Vinall’s tempted, lovesick Elizabeth  – another subtle performance – how much she would lose,  the dilemma is dated but feels real: once you’ve known the comfort of an affluent marriage, leave it and risk being deserted,  the only option is nurse or typist.  Pete Ashmore as the  dull husband catches effectively the sense of a damaged soul, so you are not quite sure whether the ruse he attempts to keep his wife and career is entirely fake – or sadly, pathetically real. Clever.

orangetreetheatre.co.uk.  to 17 June

Rating four.

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