Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation is by no means your average play.
On a superficial level, it’s easy enough to explain. Five people gather week after week in a Vermont community hall for a drama therapy class, led by Marty (Amelia Bullmore). But that’s really just the hook on which to hang the story of these different characters, where they are in their lives and what being part of the class does to them. The play’s title refers to one of the exercises that the group learn together and, as you’d expect, it’s rife with other, wider meanings. For one thing, everything takes place on a single set, the bare, functional hall in which the class is held, where high mirrors reflect back the cast – and the audience, too.
The whole production at Manchester’s HOME, as directed by Bijan Sheibani. is pared right down, as befits the script. There’s no rollercoaster narrative here, no abrupt comings or goings and no interval. As those mirrors imply, the audience are right there in the room with the characters for the duration. The dialogue, complete with hesitations, pauses and false starts, is ultra naturalistic, with edgy silences just as loaded as anything that’s being said.
Few plays are so totally anchored in performance with no staging frills to add to the mix. It’s here that Circle Mirror Transformation stands or falls, and it’s a real balancing act whether or not it can conjure magic from raw, often hidden emotion. As man-child divorcee Schultz, Con O’Neill is wondrous, bringing brittle charm to the role and lending heart and soul to the whole piece. As 16 year-old Lauren, Yasmin Paige is playing ten years younger than her actual age. She does so with aplomb, pulling off the tricky task of breathing life into a guarded character who doesn’t want to give much away.
On balance though there are times when this balancing act teeters and the play’s simplicity and repetition fall short of the mesmerising effect it is aiming for. At nearly two hours, there’s not always sufficient momentum to hold the attention so there’s the odd longeur. There are a few clunky expositional moments, too. Some characters’ stories never quite engage and there are times when the constant volley of short scenes seems to work against the general sense of intimate, slow-burning intensity.
Circle Mirror Transformation is highly idiosyncratic and not an easy sell. There’s no denying that it won’t be to all tastes, but it’s well worth catching. When it is firing on all cylinders, it’s genuinely beguiling, a theatrical conjuring act which makes for a spartan yet rich meditation on those times when life offers us a chance to change.
Main image: Yasmin Paige (Lauren), Sian Clifford (Theresa), Anthony Ofoegbu (James), Amelia Bullmore (Marty) and Con O’Neill (Schultz). Credit: Marc Brenner.
Circle Mirror Transformation is HOME, Manchester until March 17, 2018. Information and tickets:
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Con O’Neill, click here.