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Circa (The Vaults, London): Review

Circa Stroke of inspiration. Scott Westwood (left) and Freddy Carter (right). Photogph: Courtesy of work.Theatre.

Circa is a challenging crisis of gay male identity. A timely and intricate portrait of gay aspiration that’s beautifully sharp.

The man sets out on a life journey to find love and happiness, from his first awkward fling with an older single man, to becoming an older single man himself. Circa looks at the life of gay men and romance in modern times.

Circa

Blue rinse. Scott Westwood (left) and Thomas Flynn (right). Photograph: Courtesy of work.Theatre.

Writing

I was a bit worried, with a name like Circa, that this was going to be another reworking of La Ronde. As much as Hello Again and Fucking Men are great queer looks at Arthur Schnitzler’s infamous merry-go-round, we probably don’t need another. Thankfully, Tom Ratcliffe’s play is nothing of the sort, and instead charts a linear narrative through modern gay male issues with unexpected depth and conflict. Circa is not some rosy tale of gay life that has little bumps and a “happily ever after”, it’s an incredibly intelligent and sometimes scathing critique of aspirations and identity within the gay male community.

Ideals are something that everyone has on an individual, community, and societal level, and Ratcliffe expertly explores the conflicts that these levels can have. But it’s not just the greater goods that are pitted against each other here, central character, The Man, also has to battle with their own personal demons and decisions which only serve to exacerbate the difficulty of finding out who he is, what he ultimately wants, and how he should achieve it. There’s issues of monogamy vs open relationships, whether being in a gay relationship means being childless or means you can start a family, just how homophobia can become internalised, and plenty of gut-wrenching compromises. Circa is a complicated look at life goals that swallows the bitter pill whole without any sugar coating. But at all times, Circa remains provocative and cerebrally engaging, and is pricked with both sweet and bittersweet moments of comedy that keep you switched on to Circa.

The narrative of Circa with significant time gaps between scenes, but Ratcliffe writes so cooly and matter of factly that it’s easy to pick up on what’s been left out. It’s also easy to start to piece together the parallels between The Man and The Older Man’s lives that start making you think deeper about how much has or hasn’t changed in gay relationship goals, meaning that, as the title Circa suggests, we’re left with the question about whether things have come around full circle or not: a deep and rippled reflection of one life against an other. To help with this, Ratcliffe’s characters are honestly observed and naturally written. They all feel like real life people making them easy to connect with and understand. Even the The Hombre Perfecto, as dreamy as he is, has a sense of grounded humanity and own ambition, and the vivaciousness of the drag queen-cum-rent boy gives way to reveal a depth and dynamism that intricately decorates Ratcliffe’s themes rather than just shallowly pushing them along.

Circa

Apassionata. Scott Westwood (left) and Zed Josef (right). Photograph: Courtesy of work.Theatre.

Any issue that can be picked with Circa is that some seems just go on for a bit too long, but that’s mainly because Ratcliffe is trying to fully explore character and scenario, and also ensure the characters have space to react and respond to what’s going on. But sometimes the length of these cause the pace to drag a little, and with a very short first act (40 minutes) and a considerably longer second (well over an hour), you certainly start to notice the length of the scenes and start to become a bit impatient for things to move on.

But other than that, there’s really little wrong with Circa. It’s challenging, sometimes heartbreaking, and surprising. Some might find it  a little on the bleak side, but in its truth it’s a sober prod into how we see ourselves as individuals and makes us severely question where we heading and how we’re portraying ourselves as a community. A vibrant and vital play that pulls no punches and asks difficult questions not because they’re sensational, but because they’re important.

Direction & Production

With a space as atmospheric and generous as the Vaults, it can be tempting to really go hell for leather and make use of it. However, work.Theatre’s production make use of only what it needs to, whilst making effective nods and use of the ample space. The design doesn’t put up a backdrop, but lines structures covered in polythene – a lovely nod to the theme of art and veiled things (emotions and compromises etc) – right up to the hilt, giving Circa a striking visual depth. However, Joe Allan’s direction only ever makes use of the space that is needed, and ensures that the focus and action is always contained to a small area to keep that sense of intimacy that means you never feel lost or that Circa is too big for its boots. This is done by projecting boundary lines, like those of a room blueprint, onto the floor to define spaces. Then, all there is are some doors and boxes on wheels, to be used as set. It’s simple but incredibly effective, and the set-ups are varied enough that each scene has its own identity, even though it’s monochrome.

Elsewhere Allan’s direction ensures the pace is moving at a good speed but without running over more introspective and tender moments: nothing ever feels static despite some of Ratcliffe’s more complex and comprehensive explorations. Add to this some great sound design, evocative washes of colour at moments (especially during “sex” scenes) and Circa really comes to such convincing and bewitching life that it’s sparcity doesn’t matter.

Circa

Blue movie. The cast of “Circa”. Photograph: Courtesy of work.Theatre.

Cast

There’s a really great boutique cast behind Circa, many of whom double up on parts. Stand out performances include Nathan Welsh as The Partner, really getting to grips with such a natural and organic character, right down to fluent mannerisms, to become someone you could have easily met somewhere before. Between him and Scott Westwood as The Man, there’s an organic rapport that is a pretty much a perfect photocopy of an actual relationship dynamic, including tenderness and friction. It’s heartbreaking to realise that their life paths start to verge in different directions as they seem and look so good together, and this is down to some fantastic performances from them both and great on-stage chemistry.

Jenna Fincken is also outstanding as The Solution, a quirky girl looking for love who ends up with The Man as his resort for wanting the family that the “gay lifestyle” was unable to give him. She balances mild oddness with a genuine interest and sincerity that is incredibly charismatic, making you really feel for her lot and aspirations as much as The Man’s.

Westwood gives a fantastic and consistent performance throughout. Mostly mild-mannered and reserved, you seem him evolve with his character throughout Circa, making you stand completely with him through every scene, feeling as much as he does. You really get that sense of frustration, the pain of a difficult compromise, or the stab on ever growing self-hatred, as he places his ideal world above being honest and true to himself. It’s a constant performance of quiet sacrifices, silent disappointments, and doomed tenacity that evokes a pity that’s provocative rather than maudlin.

Verdict

A deep and cutting piece of LGBT theatre that asks difficult questions that other plays avoid. Circa is timely and testing, revealing in us and our community a crucial introspection about how we see ourselves, our goals, and each other.

Circa was reviewed as part of its run at The Vaults, London, as part of the London Pride Festival, between 21 -25 June 2016. For more information about production company work.Theatre, visit www.worktheatre.co.uk.