The Paradise Circus, Playground Theatre – Review

Gypsies, tramps, and thieves
We’d hear it from the people of the town
They’d call us gypsies, tramps, and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down…
Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves – Cher

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Tim Woodward

In the first half of the 20th century, many of the great American playwrights such as O’Neill, Miller and Williams dealt with the fraught relationships between fathers and sons. In James Purdy’s play The Paradise Circus, we see the familiar theme of estrangement as a result of different expectations of life.

Shortly after the end of the First World War, a shadow is cast over the Rawlings household as they mourn the death of the eldest son Rainforth. Arthur (Tim Woodward) is the most deeply affected by Rainforth’s death, holding him as an example of ‘perfection’,  whose life was prematurely taken. Unfortunately for Rainforth’s younger brothers Gregory (Joshua Ward) and Joel (Sam Coulson), his achievements are used as a yardstick by their father to measure their ‘worth’ as human beings. Suffice to say, Arthur’s constant comparisons and disparaging remarks perpetuate the distance between the generations. The arrival of Giuseppe Onofrio (Peter Tate) – the owner of a travelling circus with an offer that’s too good to be true – sets events in motion that affect the Rawlings family irrevocably.

L-R: Tim Woodward, Sophie Ward, Sam Coulson and Mark Aiken

Offering an ‘outsider’s’ perspective on the Rawlings is Dr Hallam (Mark Aiken) – the family physician. An astute observer of human behaviour and diplomatic in his demeanour, Hallam’s advice is seldom heeded by Arthur. However, on the other side of the coin there’s Alda Pennington (Sophie Ward) – the local tarot reader and ‘witch’…

Easily the most interesting character in the play, nobody likes what Alda has to say, but people always come to her to hear the unadulterated truth. The ‘karmic’ advice she gives (which has a sound psychological basis to it) usually requires people to make the ‘hardest’ choices. Not that they are ever impossible. Just that the ‘sacrifices’ necessary ‘to be whole’ require a person to relinquish the one ‘harmful’ thing they don’t want to live without. While everyone in town knows Alda, she likewise knows all about their deepest, darkest secrets. This places her in a unique position of power in the community – and someone to be ‘feared’. Even Minne Cruickshank (Debra Penny) – Arthur’s ‘virtuous’ housekeeper – has had to rely on Alda in her hour of need, and their exchange in the play says much about the ‘piety’ of the townsfolk and Alda’s station as a ‘necessary evil’…

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Joshua Ward / All photos © Scott Rylander

Under Anthony Biggs’ direction, the ambience of a century ago is conveyed with the use of evocative blues music performed by Salim Sai (who also plays the reporter Ephraim) and Darren Berry. Staging the play ‘in the round’, with the wood chip flooring and a beautfully lit canopy, there is an immediacy to the proceedings and an effortless evocation of yesteryear.

In terms of the ‘message’ of the play, it is very much a parable on the contrary impulses of human nature. The arcs of the respective characters and their eventual convergence show the interconnectivity of people’s lives and that ‘to know thyself’ is the beginning of true wisdom.

© Michael Davis 2018

Four-and-a-half stars

The Paradise Circus runs at The Playground Theatre, London until 3rd November.

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