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Circle Mirror Transformation review at Home, Manchester – ‘shimmering theatricality’

Anthony Ofoegbu and Con O’Neill in Circle Mirror Transformation at Home, Manchester. Photo: Marc Brenner Anthony Ofoegbu and Con O’Neill in Circle Mirror Transformation at Home, Manchester. Photo: Marc Brenner

Circle Mirror Transformation is a drama of accumulation. Annie Baker’s slow, delicate play deposits character layer by miniscule layer, like silt collecting on a riverbed. It takes time.

Baker shows us people from the edges. It’s only in and around a community drama class that we ever see the five characters: teacher Marty (Amelia Bullmore), her husband James (Anthony Ofoegbu), recent divorcee Shultz (Con O’Neill), lonely newcomer Teresa (Sian Clifford), and teenager Lauren (Yasmin Paige), who just wants to snag the starring role in the school production of West Side Story. Somehow, week by week, through exercises that edge closer and closer to therapy, we get to know these individuals.

It’s not quite five years since the play received its UK premiere, staged by the Royal Court in a community centre in East London. Revived in Home’s sleek auditorium, it might lack the clammy intensity of that earlier version, but Bijan Sheibani’s production adds a layer of shimmering theatricality. The mirrors lining the back wall of Samal Blak’s set reflect glimpses of the audience, piercing tiny fissures in the fourth wall that Baker’s naturalism meticulously constructs. It’s a small choice, but one that fascinatingly shifts the nature of what we’re watching.

The play’s close-up focus on character makes it a daunting showcase for performers. Sheibani’s cast brilliantly meet the challenge, gradually peeling back the characters’ armour of confidence and awkwardness to expose their brittle cores. Baker’s is a small and slow-moving slice of life, but for character insight it’s still hard to rival.

Playwright and actor Amelia Bullmore: ‘The seriousness is dealt with lightly and the humour seriously’

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A delicate new treatment of Annie Baker’s slowly accumulating character drama