Review – Circle Mirror Transformation – Royal Court at a real community center near Haggerston


If you see as many plays as I do, you may have to admit you have certain … weaknesses. It might be for a theater, a performer, a director, or something more obscure such as “plays with puppets” or “plays written with community involvement” (both of which are horrors for some and thus must be pleasures for others). I’m soft for site specific plays, Ibsen, Pinter, new plays, and, um, Imelda Staunton.

I’m sorry! It’s really embarrassing to me because I am really anti-celebrity (especially as a gimmicky way of getting punters to buy tickets) but … well, I think she’s become MORE famous since I’ve developed my man-crush on her, and the only reason it even exists is because SHE’S AWESOME ON STAGE. But, see, the embarrassment comes in because I first saw her in a movie, Vera Drake, and she blew me away. And then WOW I moved to London where WOW Staunton could be seen IN A PLAY which I immediately booked tickets to (There Came a Gypsy Riding at the Almeida – this was before this blog existed but I’ve migrated my review). Then she returned in Entertaining Mr Sloane and was so funny I nearly peed myself laughing. And she sings (Sweeney Todd)! So, in short, I consider my fannishness towards La Staunton COMPLETELY reasonable given that she’s, basically, awesome in everything. (But it’s still embarrassing given that most people recognize her from a trashy movie series of the sort that tends to send non-theater aficionados to the box office.)

Anyway, without her, I might not have been tempted to see Circle Mirror Transformation. Plot: a bunch of people in a small town in Vermont sign up to take an acting class, with surprising results. Reality: IT IS IN AN ACTUAL COMMUNITY CENTER NEARLY 90 MINUTES FROM MY HOUSE AND IT WAS 32 DEGREES OUTSIDE AND THE BUILDING WAS NOT AIRCONDITIONED. And the plot sounded cringetastic in the worst possible way. And yet I called the box office in the hopes there might be a return ticket for the matinee DURING THE ROASTINGEST PART OF THE DAY because 1) the show was sold out yet I was ever hopeful 2) I still wanted to go 3) I don’t have a job so weekday matinees are possible 4) I was hearing good things about it. And yes there was a ticket and YAY off I went to the darkest depths of Dalston.

Surprisingly, I’d actually been to the venue before – it was the home of Retz’ The Trial, but it was the main cafe area that had been set up as a theater, with bleachers rising up in front of a flat, gym-like floor illuminated by overhead fluorescents. With a piano in the back and various junk scattered on the sides, it required no effort at all to make it a community center in my mind! The staff was kindly handing out glasses of water, and we were promised (as we sat in the 32 degree minimum building!) that if we wanted to leave at any point, they would break with normal polity and let us back in at an appropriate time – indeed, they were willing to refund us our money now if we didn’t feel like we could make it through. I whipped my fan out of my bag (thinking ahead!), tucked the bottle of water at my feet, and settled in for the duration – two hours straight through.

I think it was a testament to both the high quality of the acting – all around, not just of one person – that not a single person left the show at any point during this sweltering afternoon. Watching the “learn how to think like an actor” exercises was somewhat painful at time – and included long, uncomfortable (and very, very natural) pauses – but as we worked through the various scenes (most quite short) and we got to know the characters and they got to know each other – well, something very believable happened, and we were watching an acting class with a bunch of bored/lonely/untalented people all taking it for their own reasons, and we were very interested in what was going on, and where it was going.

And then it was the last night of class, and people were saying their goodbyes, and people had changed, and the lights came up and we were applauding, and, wow, so maybe there were a few too many breathing scenes or maybe too many “set people up as furniture” scenes, but it had made the experience come alive. And it was over, for them and for us, and we were walking out into the cooling evening, and I thought, my God, it was actually totally worth it. And Imelda Staunton is still awesome, but so was everyone else, and I wanted to hug all of my fellow theater goers, because it had really made me feel like I was back in America and hugging is just what you do after a group experience like that.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Wednesday, July 16, 2013. It is sold out but tickets become available sporadically on the Royal Court Website, and it’s absolutely worthwhile to call and check on returns. In addition, the person at the box office said no one on their wait list had yet been turned away, so if you’re reading this and wondering if you should roll the dice and go queue, Simon says “yes.” The last day is August 3rd. Now together, everybody: breathe, and slowly count to ten, one at a time.)

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