Peripheral vision

<i>The Circle</i> | Salisbury Playhouse
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The Independent Culture

The last time there was a notable Somerset Maugham revival in the English theatre, the production starred Kathleen Turner. Of course, it didn't get one millionth of the coverage lavished on The Graduate because Ms Turner overcame any urge to give us a 20-second, dimly-lit peek at her anatomy and the play was not based on a Hollywood movie. But Our Betters was much, much better. That play is set in the 1920s among the rich Americans in London who were prepared to trade their money for the class debatably granted to them by marriage into the impoverished English aristocracy.

The last time there was a notable Somerset Maugham revival in the English theatre, the production starred Kathleen Turner. Of course, it didn't get one millionth of the coverage lavished on The Graduate because Ms Turner overcame any urge to give us a 20-second, dimly-lit peek at her anatomy and the play was not based on a Hollywood movie. But Our Betters was much, much better. That play is set in the 1920s among the rich Americans in London who were prepared to trade their money for the class debatably granted to them by marriage into the impoverished English aristocracy.

Maugham was always good at fixing the English establishment with the gimlet stare of the outsider. As Mark Rosenblatt's shrewd and sparkling Oxford Stage Company revival of The Circle now suggests, the author, though he swam side stroke in the crÿme de la crÿme, knew from personal experience the outsider feelings of the secret, well-connected 1920s homosexual. Indeed, the play makes even more sense if you also see it as a coded comment on Maugham's awkward marriage with interior decorator Syrie, whom he left for his secretary, Gerald Haxton.

In The Circle, the oblique Haxton-figure is dishy young Edward Luton (Tom Mullion), himself an outsider in the sense that he is a rubber planter on leave from the Malay States. The question, which this artful comedy leaves open till the final moments, is whether Elizabeth (Katharine Burford) will abandon her stuffy MP husband, Arnold Champion-Cheney (Dale Rapley) for a life of precarious love and social ostracism on the imperial margins. If she does, she will be making history repeat itself, for we see that situation Maugham has adroitly contrived juxtaposes two potential bolters from the younger generation with an elderly couple who did just that, with decidedly mixed consequences, years ago.

The play is set in the MP's Dorsetshire country house, where there is a sticky social problem. Meeting one another for the first time since that bygone elopement are Arnold's father (a suavely manipulative Jonathan Newth) and the wife and best friend who cuckolded him. Both men had been prime ministerial material, but Trevor Baxter's very funny Lord Porteous is now a rumbling volcano of tetchiness and regret, while the wife (amusingly and sympathetically portrayed by Lois Baxter) is a twittering nightmare of rouge and red hair dye, a Wildean dowager who has been invaded over the years by a pantomime dame.

Dale Rapley's anal Arnold is forever straightening the lines of his precious antique furniture, as though people were just creatures who ruined the perfection of one's décor, and Rosenblatt and his designer Tim Shortall get a lot of unforced comic mileage over the positioning of characters on these treasured items.

Someone once said of Bertrand Russell that life was too small for him. That can also be true of Maugham when his withering ability to see through things involves him in looking straight past others less worthy of his disdain. Not here, though, in this thought-provoking delight.

To 21 October (01722 320333)

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