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The Paradise Circus (Susan Elkin reviews)


Sophie Ward as Alda Pennington and Tim Woodward as Arthur Rawlings. Photo – Scott Rylander

The Paradise Circus – ★★★★
By James Purdy. Produced by The Playground Theatre.
society/company: Playground Theatre (professional)
performance date: 12 Oct 2018
venue: The Playground Theatre

It’s 1919 and Arthur Rawlings (Tim Woodward) has lost his favourite eldest son in the war. He has no time for the younger ones (Joshua Ward and Sam Coulson) whom he regards as “lazybones and dreamers” so when he gets an opportunity to part company with them he grabs it – only to be felled later by regret and remorse. The plot sits somewhere between The Mayor of Casterbridge and Death of a Salesman. James Purdy (1914-2009) is a highly compelling playwright whose work is at last getting some of the recognition it deserves – this production is the world premiere of this play.

The Playground Theatre is, on this occasion, configured in the round and because it’s a large space there is space for the cast behind some of the raked seating – cue for some very atmospheric, wistful, immersive, choral singing and fine incidental music mostly played and sung by the impressively versatile Darren Berry (who trained at The Royal Ballet School so he dances too) on piano, violin, kit drum, guitar, banjo and more as well as voice and playing a small speaking role as Gonzago.

Sophie Ward is outstanding as the still, calm, sardonic Alda Pennington, a local “witch” consulted by Rawlings in his despair. The wisest, most knowing person of all her character makes outrageous predictions and observations. But this is not witchcraft or magic, it’s wisdom and practicality and she is right every time. Ward dominates the action whenever she’s on stage.

I also liked Joshua Ward’s (yes, he’s Sophie’s son and the late Simon Ward’s grandson – dynasty?) work as Greg. He uses an impassive way of speaking associated with trauma and enduring distress until at the very end when he crumbles and quivers but it’s immaculately understated. He and Coulson work nicely together too with a lot of focused listening.

At the heart of this powerful production is a fine tragic performance from Woodward ably supported by Mark Aiken as the kindly sensible Dr Hallam with whom he has a lot of scenes. There are also some pleasing scenes with Debra Penny as Minnie, a sort of long term live-in family friend and, by implication, mistress to Woodward’s character. She too is affectionate and decent – but with an angry past as her red hot scene with Sophie Ward’s character makes clear.

The Paradise Circus is a tragedy about personality flaws, misjudgement and bad decisions, as strong in its way as Othello or Dr Faustus – and, with sensitive direction by Anthony Biggs – it makes for pretty riveting theatre. A bit of a gem, in fact. Goodness knows why nobody has seen fit to stage it before.

This review was first published by Sardines:,%20The%20(professional)-The%20Paradise%20Circus%20-%20%E2%98%85%E2%98%85%E2%98%85%E2%98%85&reviewsID=3345

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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