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Theatre review: Circle Mirror Transformation

Rose Lipman Building, Haggerston, London – 4 stars

Faced with the prospect of an American play about a drama therapy group, even the least cynical soul might brace himself or herself for grating theatrical in-jokes or an icky re-tread of A Chorus Line without the dancing or the singing but with an undiminished quotient of narcissistic navel-gazing. That's why Circle Mirror Transformation, the Obie Award-winning play by the 31 year old Annie Baker, is such a disarming surprise. 

Focusing on the emotional fluctuations in a five-strong bunch of Vermont residents as they meet for their weekly sessions in a community drama class, the piece is remarkably open-minded in its supple, low-key way, shifting from the preposterous to the poignant, the tender to the silly, with a sharply observant but uncensorious spirit.  Nothing much happens but by the end of the programme, the lives of all the participants have, for better or worse, been significantly changed. 

The Royal Court's off-site UK premiere is unveiled, appropriately enough, in a community arts space in Hackney.  For James Macdonald's cast-to-the-hilt superbly acted production, we're in a dance studio where we watch the group members perform exercises supervised by their leader, the  bohemian, 1970s-formed Marty, whom the excellent Imelda Staunton invests with one of those irritatingly all-forgiving smiles but also with the shrewd attentiveness of a well-meaning woman. There are the confrontations using nonsense language; there's the sculpting of emblematic family tableaux; there are the stumbling, personal monologues where they have to speak as if they were a fellow-member, and, like a running gag, the parts where they lie on their backs, eyes closed, attempting to count to ten collectively without any vocal collisions.

Macdonald paces his production with a wonderfully sure instinct for the drama's canny shifts between pauseful, almost exasperating unhurriedness and its black-out-sketch drollery. The participation of Marty's husband, (Danny Webb), broodingly estranged from a daughter, feels a bit contrived for a predictable purpose but Toby Jones, as a carpenter endearingly raw from a recent divorce, and Fenella Woolgar's excellent Theresa, on the rebound from New York, acting ambitions, and a selfish lover, beautifully conjure up the gruesome awkwardness of their brief, misguided, extracurricular attachment.  It's left to sixteen-year-old Lauren (a compellingly truculent and watchful Shannon Tarbet) to ask “Are we going to be doing any real acting?...Like acting out a play?”.  The piece makes no inflated claims for the salutary powers of drama therapy, nor does it underestimate them, as is intimated in a stirring final scene that bitter-sweetly blurs the boundaries between a studio exercise and real life ten years hence. 

To 3 August; 0207 565 5000