In Circle Line, six disparate characters gather for a group therapy session. But the therapist is late – and as they wait for him to arrive, they discuss their mental health issues, bicker, and ultimately help each other. It’s a promising premise for an hour-long show, but it’s fatally undermined by simplistic stereotypical characters and a script riddled with cliché. I genuinely couldn’t decide if it was a farce addressing serious issues, or a purportedly serious treatment of mental health with inadvertently farcical moments.
Despite an encouraging opening – featuring Sarah Wenban’s Carole (with an “e”) as a study in lack of confidence – it becomes clear that the characters are purely defined as a collection of mannerisms and tics. The boyish enthusiasm of the camp museum curator, flouncing around with his Tom-Baker-as-Doctor-Who scarf, is simply the most irritating among a parade of one-dimensional parodies.
As the characters settle into stereotype, playwright Lisa Panucci does nothing interesting with them. Each character has exactly the issue you expect of them; the signalling is blatant. The character who greedily grabs all the biscuits, and later spends an age in the toilet? You’ve guessed it, an eating disorder. This obviousness undermines any potential for drama, and one potential surprise – a coming-out revelation – is so underplayed that the character has to point out that it has happened.
The clichés in the characters are supplemented by those in the script, as well as the unnaturalness of the dialogue. In a highly-charged situation like group therapy, people simply don’t lay out their issues in complete paragraphs. The “Oh god, no” moments are not driven by drama or surprise, but by their sheer inevitability; the final resolution between two of the female characters comes straight from a 70’s sitcom. In fact, the biggest surprise is that one cast member listed in the programme doesn’t appear in the play at all, yet comes on stage to take a bow at the end.
There are some redeeming factors. James McKendrick as the common-sense everyman Ricky, and Neil Bird as the angry blustering John, brought some much-needed realism to their characters; while Moira Cane struggled valiantly with exposition-laden dialogue. The receptionist’s inappropriate “pull yourselves together, it’ll be all right in the morning” attitude could have been hilarious if counter-balanced in some way, but it is simply left there unchallenged.
If this show was meant to normalise discussion of therapy and mental illness, it achieved the exact opposite. It’s not just that it features six shallow stereotypes; it’s more that their troubles are neatly resolved in an hour, with little more than a dose of straight talking and the realisation that life's not so bad after all. Capping it all off, the men suggest a trip to the pub, while two of the women plan some clothes shopping. Thankfully, mental health issues are no longer as stigmatised as once they were – but they still need sensitive and intelligent handling, and they still deserve better than Circle Line.