Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation is every inch a modern classic

A wise first choice for the Royal Court's new artistic director Vicky Featherstone.

Circle Mirror Transformation rehearsals.
Rehearsals for Circle Mirror Transformation at the Royal Court. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey/Royal Court 2013.

Circle Mirror Transformation
The Royal Court at the Rose
Lipman Building, London N1

Within a year of its New York premiere, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation was the second-most-produced play in the US. On its first outing in Britain – as the first choice for the Royal Court’s new artistic director, Vicky Featherstone – it looks every inch a modern classic.

Baker shows us snapshots from a six-week community drama-therapy class; staccato scenes punctuated by blackouts. We see five people playing games – counting collectively, chattering in gibberish, being trees and other inanimate objects. We glimpse their breaktime small talk: a snatched flirtation here, a morsel of unsolicited lifestyle advice there. There’s little more than that – the weeks pass, their counting improves – but two hours later, five lives have been flipped on their axes.

The class is led by Marty (Imelda Staunton), a small-town would-be spirit guide of sorts, who speaks with the regulated, cotton-wool calm of a professional therapist. Her husband, James (Danny Webb), is taking part – not for the first time and not ungrudgingly. By the first session’s first break, he’s already raised the possibility of usurpation by quietly undermining her instructions.

The paying participants are Schultz (Toby Jones), a carpenter still reeling from his divorce a year earlier; Theresa (Fenella Woolgar), a recently retired, thirtysomething actress hung up over a controlling ex-boyfriend; and Lauren (Shannon Tarbet), a teenager with ambitions to become an actress (or a vet) and a difficult home life.

Baker’s great skill is to let these background biographies come out in the wash. Her exposition is feather-light. This is a play in which who gets asked to embody a favourite tree speaks volumes; in which Schultz describing Theresa’s recent “toxic relationship” tells you as much about him as it does about her. Baker’s characters betray themselves through unthinking word selection, through reflex reactions and in unregarded moments. It’s cringe comedy with a huge heart – sometimes hilariously deadpan, sometimes deeply tender – and it’s satisfying to watch. You’re forced into (and rewarded for) forensic attention.

The plot happens in the play’s peripheries. The room temperature changes. Group dynamics shift. Five strangers start to trust each other and deep-buried secrets float to the surface. Schultz and Theresa begin and end the sort of ill-judged, impulsive affair of two lonely souls colliding. James’s and Marty’s marriage starts to show its splinters. Lauren, who just wants to do some “proper acting”, learns a bit about life, a bit about herself and a bit about people. Baker’s life-changing moments aren’t lightning bolts; they’re more like longshore drift.

These are wounded individuals. Life has made them brittle and they’ve accumulated hang-ups and insecurities with age. If each of them feels invisible, Marty’s class lets them feel seen again. That fosters a new confidence but there’s a delicate balance between being seen and performing, between presence and ego. (The play’s title is significant: it refers to a call-and-response exercise intended to improve listening and foster togetherness but it elevates one individual and becomes a conch that gets snatched.)

These games, all about sharing and selfrevelation, have an offstage impact, too. Their side effects are both positive and negative. One character telling another’s life story can throw up some hard-to-take home truths. Overall, Marty is not in total control. Seemingly innocuous exercises have the dangerous, unknown potential of a Ouija board.

This is what makes the play far more than a two-hour diversion. Baker is aiming at something universal: the vulnerable individual in the big, bad world. It’s a play that leaves you determined to care more and to care better; to check your ego and donate your time and energy to others. Because, for all that Marty and the others mess up, time and again, they mean well and they keep trying. Kind hearts win out in the long run. Baker ends with a coup de théâtre of breathtaking simplicity: a drama exercise imagining a possible future cross-fades into a hopeful reality.

James Macdonald’s skilful production does all that’s asked of it. The text does most of the work but it could so easily have been ruined. Baker prefaces the script with a plea to “treat these characters with compassion. They are not fools.” The cast members respect that challenge and are impressive. Staunton treads a delicate line between martyr and monster without seeking our approval or castigation. Jones wears every half-thought on his ragged face, awkwardness and agony in equal measure. Tarbet plays Lauren with an astonishing stillness: a surface on which the rest of the play is reflected. In short, go – and if you can’t, demand the Royal Court extend it until you can. If that doesn’t work, just read it. Baker’s writing is that good.

The play runs until 3 August