“We’re on the moon! I’m the Queen of Moonville!” exclaims a woman standing on a chair. You’d be forgiven if, for a few brief moments, your heart sank at the am-dram purgatory you seem to have stumbled into. But don’t panic: we’re not on the moon, but in a concrete bunker of a community centre in the decaying town of Circleville. We’re watching the participants of a fictional “drama therapy” group, as they devise and perform their own pieces – plays which, it soon becomes clear, are imbued with parallels to their own troubled lives.
It’s a difficult thing, to play actors acting amateurishly, and the effect can grow wearing after a while. But this production has found a clever way to have its cake and eat it, using lighting changes to signal two distinct styles: the first when the characters themselves are acting, and the second when the real actors take over, delivering powerfully-performed and convincing scenes from their characters’ pasts. The line gets a little blurred later on, with the second style applied to scenes where it logically doesn’t belong, but on the whole this highly effective device deserves considerable applause.
And the characters are worth getting to know. There’s the dry, cynically expressive Joe; the big-hearted but slightly unstable Sal; and Carrie, the uncooperative one with a tragedy in her past. Presiding over it all is the earnest, self-satisfied therapist Ellen, who’s on a mission to “fix Circleville” by unlocking the emotions hiding within. But then something happens – a surprise I won’t spoil – to change the dynamic of the group, bringing a new sense of threat and uncertainty into this once-safe space. The results are intriguing and quietly tense, as past traumas and present troubles are gradually exposed and explored.
Lamorna Ash’s script is clever and thoroughly convincing, but the balance between the stories is wonky. Joe is a well-realised character, but his role is underweight – we learn a lot about his mildly obsessive behaviour, but not enough about what’s made him that way. Conversely, Sal’s relatively straightforward back-story is laboured, with a whole scene towards the end that added nothing I hadn’t already inferred. Carrie, meanwhile, is the Goldilocks of the group: with an off-the-wall opening that develops into a sympathetic understanding, hers is the tale that’s done just right.
And like many Fringe plays, Circleville, Circlevalley hasn’t quite made up its mind about the fourth wall. At times, it’s implied that this is a private drama session, exclusive to the people we see on stage. But in other moments they reach into the audience, recruiting some of us to serve as characters in their plays. So are we there, or aren’t we? A bit more thought and some clearer framing could kick the experience up a gear, turning it into a fully immersive play and building an even stronger empathy with the characters.
There’s huge potential in Circleville, Circlevalley – and with a run in London already booked in, I hope it’s at the beginning of an exciting journey. As it stands, it’s all just a little bit muddy, both for the structural reasons I’ve highlighted above and through minor details like actors intentionally speaking over each other’s lines. But none of these problems is hard to fix. On the strength of what I’ve already seen, this adventurous company’s future work is easy to recommend.