For a play that was first staged 100 years ago The Circle by Somerset Maugham comes across as remarkably fresh in a superior new touring production from Theatre royal Bath that has come to the Oxford Playhouse this week.

I would judge that one reason for this is because the recurring themes of love and relationships at its heart are universal subjects in the human experience.

But its vigour, also lies in the sharp wit that gives this pacy play a tang that prevents it turning into a Downton Abbeyesque potboiler. Especially so under the expert direction of Tom Littler.    

The beautiful but flighty Lady Kitty Champion-Cheney returns to the family home after 30 years away.

A ‘bolter’ who decades before had left her husband and young son, Arnold, to accompany her wealthy lover on a life of high romance abroad, she has come back home at the invitation of her daughter-in-law.  

Oxford Mail: Jane Asher and Nicholas Le Prevost star in The Circle at Oxford Playhouse Jane Asher and Nicholas Le Prevost star in The Circle at Oxford Playhouse (Image: Nobby Clark)Elizabeth, Arnold’s wife, is fascinated by the amorous adventures of Lady Kitty, and is on the cusp of her own marital breakdown. 

Will history repeat itself, or does the bickering and world-weariness of the now elderly runaway couple take the glamour out of Elizabeth’s dreams of le grand passion?

As Lady Kitty observes; “Men do fall in love – but they are not in love all day long.” 

The elegant Jane Asher captures the complexity of this fading society beauty perfectly.

Oxford Mail: Jane Asher in The Circle Jane Asher in The Circle (Image: Nobby Clark)The character is an absolute egotist, but she is witty and has a sharp understanding of her own predicament. Yet she can also be rather emotionally obtuse. 

This leads to some hilarious lines, “I wish I knew how to help you. Would you like my lip-stick?  It’s such a comfort when you’re in trouble.”

Clive Francis and Nicholas Le Prevost pack an equally strong comedic punch as Kitty’s deserted husband, Clive, and her lover, Lord Hughie.

In fact, this trio rather steal the show from the youngsters because Maugham has given them some great droll moments and they play them with relish. 

Oxford Mail: Clive Francis, Jane Asher and Nicholas Le PrevostClive Francis, Jane Asher and Nicholas Le Prevost (Image: Geraint Lewis)

That is not to say that Pete Ashmore as Arnold, Olivia Vinall as Elizabeth, and Daniel Burke as her lover Teddie Luton do not give strong, expert performances – as they certainly do. But all the best gags go to the older generation. 

The scene where they gather for a game of Bridge is simply superb. 

Congratulations to Tom Littler for reviving this little gem. 

His production is sharp and lively, it does not feel like a museum piece or a curiosity, and it still works very well as a play for our times too.   

A very entertaining evening.

It's at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday, March 10.

Angie Johnson

(Five stars)