Family Circles

By Sarah Garland, English Literature Masters – A Review of the GDTC and BTC Freshers’ Play

It’s always fun watching a play in Chad’s Chapel because you are in such a close and intimate space that you really feel like you’re a part of what’s happening on the stage.

This worked particularly well with Family Circles, a hilarious take on all the drama that comes with family life, for the aim of writer Alan Ayckbourn – or so it seemed to me – was to draw us into the play with familiar situations that we all recognise from our own familial experiences, then shock us by twisting those moments so that, as an audience now very much involved with the action, we don’t know whether to laugh or gasp.

Poppy Simpson and Theo Tobias as Polly and Oliver. Photo credit: Natalie Ho.

In this sense, the play was complete success. The incredible acting and well-timed physical comedy kept the audience constantly laughing and, as I mentioned, the setting was intimate in a way that worked well with the play’s theme. Every character was well-formed by the actor meaning that the confusion intentionally caused by the swapping of partners between scenes was not so bewildering that we lost the plot of the play. Each sister dates (or is married to) a different one of the three male characters in each scene; it was complicated, but shows how well-rehearsed the cast was so that these changes were fluid enough to make sense. Furthermore, it demonstrated the play’s point: the confusion and ultimate futility of trying to comprehend what family means or looks like.

(From left to right) Theo Tobias (Oliver),  Naomi Cook (Jenny), Ollie Morrell (James), Alice Butler (Deidre). Photo credit: Natalie Ho.

The cast also coped with the difficulty of social realism theatre by performing in a way that made the work understandable and relatable without being boring or unrealistic. As an audience, we believed the family to be a snapshot of real life and yet still wanted to know what would happen. Just as in real life, the characters talk over each other, get drunk (a very skilled performance from Alice Butler here) and have casual, mundane conversation to fill the time. In fact, we were so convinced in the reality of the situation that we forgot, until the shocking end of the play, that there was an underlying plot of the children trying to prevent a serious disaster occurring between their parents (not to spoil the ending!). Again, this shock of severity entering into normality makes us laugh when we probably should be horrified, simply because we are still so absorbed in the normal situation of the play that we accept the twist to be comedic.

Edward’s assumption that ‘Whoever you decide on to share your life with invariably turns out to be the worst possible choice you could have made’ is seen played out in parallel universes, with different couples finding each other at different points; it then leaves you to decide if any (or none) of the couples are suitably matched.

Gabriella Sills, Director
Harry Regan as David. Photo credit: Natalie Ho.

Although the main feeling I took away from the play was joy at the comedic elements, having thought about it more I realised that there were serious debates around ‘family circles’ going on within the play. The largest point seemed to be that marriage rarely works. The only stable relationship is that of the parents Emma and Edward, played incredibly by Sarah Taylor and Henry Nicoll, and they were definitely not in a happy marriage. The switching of partners across the play shows that, with every girl-guy combination tried, no pairing is entirely happy, if at all. Although, as Gabbie Sills marks in the director’s note, the question of whether any of the couples worked is fully down to our interpretation. Nonetheless, by the play’s conclusion, we were all convinced by the familiarity the acting and setting produces and by the invalidity of each of the relationship within the play, that if one of the character’s murdered the other even after thirty years of marriage, that this would make sense. After all, that’s how relationships work… isn’t it?

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