Although an encounter between the same two actors bookends Tom Ratcliffe’s new play Circa, their roles are drastically reversed. Circa charts the life of a gay everyman figure through episodic snapshots of his pivotal encounters with sexual and romantic partners. As he ages, a different actor takes on the role of the main character, so that by the end Thomas Flynn and Antony Gabriel have swapped the role of protagonist. Their rendezvous reflects back a flipped image of the beginning; it’s a repetition of events that suggests a cyclical entrapment that comes with the lifestyle sold to gay men.
While Ratcliffe’s Circa portrays one Man’s struggle to find long-lasting love, it then offers that up as a universal experience often felt by gay men. Circa employs this man’s experiences to articulate something about being gay in the twenty-first century, but it’s not entirely clear what that something is. It does at times expose narratives not often peddled in gay media, such as the insidiously traumatic undertone some anonymous sexual hookups can carry. These hookups, however brief, are formative in establishing how the Man engages with his feelings about men. But mostly, Circa settles mainly on depicting the Man’s unrequited desire for finding a love that aligns with his vision of what his life should like.
Ratcliffe’s characters, including the protagonist, are expressed as archetypes – The First Fling, The Rent Boy, The Drunken Encounter – engendering them with a symbolic quality that generalises them as familiar characters. Who hasn’t had The First Love, The Drunken Encounter? But, in defining these roles as archetypes, something is lost in the storytelling. Circa does better when exploring the nuanced relationships this Man experiences than it does when presenting a grander narrative. Strangely, characters’ real names are sometimes revealed, as if they too are resisting the archetypal restrictions being thrust upon them.
Some scenes sparkle with rich dialogue and strong performances. As the Man, Daniel Abelson expresses his desire for kids to his candid Partner (also known as Eric), played well by Joseph Rowe, who replies by suggesting they have an open relationship. Both of them are stunned by each other’s version of their shared future, and the silence between them is injected with both love and sadness in equal measure.
Part of the issue is that the Man’s character, perhaps precisely due to the requirement he be an everyman, is nondescript. Director Andy Twyman’s nicely articulates the Man’s transitions from actor to actor, which helps to efficiently establish a dramatic language. But the Man carries no discernible features that link these actors and their respective portrayal of the character. Luke W. Robson’s set is also given an onerous task of representing very different regional and urban spaces that span decades, and while it does so rather successfully, there is a sense that it needn’t.
The script is stronger at the start and then meanders. The Man’s desire for children leads him to seek a relationship with a woman, dubiously called The Solution (Jenna Fincken), who accidentally and somewhat serendipitously informs him of his First Love’s fate (Joseph Rowe). Circa then loses its sense of nuance: the final scene, with Gabriel as the Older Man, is set in a near future that’s less than fully realised: the only visible difference from the present being phone-like gadgets that aren’t called phones.
Ratcliffe’s script covers a lifespan of significant love affairs, but some feel as if they should be given more time. Circa offers some well written, grainy portraits that reveal the challenges and complexities that face gay men seeking love. But frustratingly, it zooms out when it should continue to zoom in.
Circa is on at Old Red Lion till 30th March. More info here.