Review: Circleville, Circlevalley

Ellie Siora reflects on an Edinburgh show packed full of childlike energy

When I saw Circleville, Circlevalley in Oxford, I was expecting the host of issues one associates with a pre-Edinburgh showing – surprisingly, it was close to faultless. Circleville, Circlevalley follows the storylines of four characters caught in the kaleidoscopic narrative cast by the self-made drama therapist Ellen (Rebecca Hamilton), whose own character strikes the appropriate balance between transparency and opacity to suit her role as the author and agent of the events that follow. There is a cutting combination of witty and thought-provoking material, courtesy of writer Lamorna Ash, alongside director Sammy Glover who translates it effectively onto the stage.

This piece deserves high merit as a piece of new writing. It provides a timeless exploration of the human compulsion, and necessity, to tell stories, whilst commenting on the abysmal failure of contemporary society and politics to make space for such story telling. Furthermore, Ash constructs her characters with a touch that beckons the audience to instantly empathise. Their humanity is established through a simple paintbrush stroke of authenticity that quickly situates them as ‘familiar faces’ in the audiences’ eye.

This is compounded by nuances in dialogue that maintains a sense of spontaneity and surprise in the action – bringing them to life for the first time on the stage. Ash’s writing feels particularly timely and pertinent when dealing with mental health – overbrimming with unconventional insights into our perception of stigmatised mental illness, and how we cope with it.

The writing’s original and charming potential is carried through in performance. The well-structured character’s of Ash’s play are not wasted upon the actors who embody them. Their consistency and focus in maintaining these nuances should be highlighted, particularly under the pressure of such an intimate space that required their interaction with the audience. This will not be a review that sings the merit of particular actors.

The adjective most fitting to the performances of Higgins, Levan, Hamilton, Saraf and Jesper- Jones is ‘well-sitched’. All are air-tight in their individual portrayals whilst seamlessly inter-woven to each other as an ensemble.

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The performance maintained a coherency, through the seamless harmony of these unique and idiosyncratic characters, thanks to the skilful hand of director Sammy Glover. Although Glover decided to include Circleville, Circlevalley in the ever-growing group of Oxford-bred plays that are making physical theatre an integral part of the performance – Glover’s use of it is well-executed and original.

The use of physical theatre, rather than just being a crowd-pleaser, is used to highlight the thematic details of the play – moving between moments of physical harmony and discord like a well-timed pendulum. Moreover, the physical theatre is appropriate to a certain energy that is netted throughout the piece.

The performance, seeking to immerse the audience into the drama therapy class, creates an absorbing sense of informality whilst successfully avoiding the risk of coming off as unrehearsed.

The set and technical aspects of the play were fitting with this absorbing sense of informality. The small space, dressed minimalistically and lit with imperceptible artistry by the neon lights of the room, achieved a successful deconstruction of the fourth wall that gave the space for immersion, but also reflection. My one qualm with the performance would be the use of sound, the only ‘theatrical’ element to what is, otherwise, a play that purposely chooses not to rely on the conventional trickery of the stage.

Although I see the metaphorical relevance in integrating an ‘unnatural’ use of stagecraft as the script explores the power of the imagination, its sometimes faltering function was quite jarring in the, otherwise, clockwork timing of the performance. Although the use of sound adds drama and slots in with the general message of the play, sloppy timing compromised the enrapturing childish energy that carries the audience through the story. The sound is the one instance where informality would not add to Circleville, Circlevalley’s charm. Although there are some necessary tweaks to be made.

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My hope for this piece of theatre is that, as it trundles up to the Scottish capital, it works not to iron itself out into professional quality but, rather, to maintain the verve that made it feel so fresh in Oxford. This is one definitely worth catching at the Fringe.