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  • Chris O'Rourke

Circle of Friends

Circle of Friends. Image Ste Murray


Old stories for older people. Maeve Binchy's Circle of Friends might be full of youthful energy, but it's an old story for an older audience. Like most of Broadway and the West End, it deals out dollops of feel-good nostalgia repurposed for the stage, with obligatory song and dance routines thrown in for good measure. More Bord Gais Energy Theatre than Abbey Theatre, Circle of Friends feels artistically lightweight. And it is. But even the heavyweights have been trying to get in on the light entertainment act. Awkward song and dance numbers wedged in to get the audience clapping. Repackaging old stories. Recycling old reliables. Betting on the safe brand. Do we really need another production of Translations?

Post COVID restrictions, we all want a little feel-good entertainment, and Circle of Friends is certainly that. But it raises questions about how we make and engage with theatre. Who has a responsibility for making theatre as art? Is theatre as entertainment seen as having less value? Questions Breda Cashe's Circle of Friends pushes to the forefront without having intended to. Simply by serving up less an artistic dahl so much as an entertaining 99 ice cream cone with lashings of raspberry coulis. So unhealthy and mouth-wateringly bad for you, it hits the sweet spot.

Circle of Friends. Image Ste Murray

A pure nostalgic sugar rush, Circle of Friends makes no pretension to art. Like Donal Shiel's of Verdant Productions, co-producer of the runaway success Copperface Jacks: The Musical, Cashe is a shrewd and gifted operator. Both having that ruthless pragmatism which asks will an audience like it and not always feeling shackled to crusading for art. Sometimes it's about the audience having fun. Always it's about theatre executed to the highest production standards. With Circle of Friends Cashe doesn't skimp on the cash, employing a cast of thirteen. No charity shop vintage here. This is made to measure and tailored to fit. Aside from the centrepiece of Kate Moylan's set, which looks roughly hammered together, (stained glass window aside) drawing attention from her far more successful columns and terrific costumes.

It’s easy to forget that Binchy was an astute social commentator as well as a first-rate storyteller. Especially as Elaine Murphy's adaptation suggests an Ireland's Own Ireland even as women were often treated as second glass citizens. Honouring both Binchy's novel from 1990, and the movie from 1995, Murphy's take follows three women venturing to college in the late 1950s who become fast friends. There's convent serious Eve, a superbly funny Aisling Kearns, the beguiling glamour girl Nan, a pitch perfect Juliette Crosbie, and the put upon Benny, a fantastic Roseanna Purcell. Purcell particularly impressive given Murphy reduces her to a moon eyed schoolgirl in love with the popular jock and deprives her of that self assurance that defined her. Nor does Murphy interrogate how the status quo values get restored even as times are changing, with middle class, virginal good girls getting their husbands while working class bad girls go to scandal and ruin. Or worse, to London.

Circle of Friends. Image Ste Murray

But this is not art, it is pure, unapologetic entertainment. Murphy's cinematically structured script knowing how to craft a good scene and a story. With director Viko Nikci knowing how to get great performances and every laugh possible. Notables include Shane O'Regan's gorgeously gormless Aidan, Marcus Lamb's pantomime villain Sean, Mark O'Regan and Susannah De Wrixon as Mr and Mrs Hogan, and Evanne Kilgallon as the loud laughing Rosemary. The ensemble's chemistry making Circle of Friends an utter joy.

In the best theatre scenes there's respectful room for art and entertainment, art as entertainment, and entertainment as art. With interesting areas of overlap. Even so, there's a worrying trend in old stories for older people, few near as good as Circle of Friends, many with an emphasis on light entertainment. Look at the West End and Broadway. What's next? Legally Blonde goes Back To The Future in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Musical? (if that gets made I expect a tidy sum for coming up with the idea). A very smart friend said recently these changes are cyclical, do not despair. She's usually right. In the meantime, I'll have a 99 please, and don't spare the raspberry. With a giant sized flake while you're at it. If you're going to indulge, you may as well do it right. And Circle of Friends does indulgence right.

Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy, adapted by Elaine Murphy, presented by Breda Cashe Productions in associaion with The Gaiety Theatre runs at The Gaiety Theatre until May 14.

For more information visit The Gaiety Theatre.


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