The Paradise Circus, Playground London, 3***: William Russell



by James Purdy


The Playground Theatre, Latimer Road, London W10 6RQ to 3 November 2018.

Mon-Sat 7.30pm, Mat Sat 2.30pm

Runs 2 hrs 30 mins One interval.

TICKETS: 020 2960 0110

Review: William Russell 12 October.

Magic realism and discovering love

James Purdy is more celebrated than read perhaps, claimed as one of the great American writers admired by his peers, everyone from Tennessee Williams to Edith Sitwell and Gore Vidal, but neglected by the public. He wrote many novels and several plays of which The Paradise Circus, getting its premiere here, is possibly the most interesting so all credit to Anthony Biggs for putting it on.

Set in 1919 it is about Arthur Rawlings, a widower in the mid West obsessed with his eldest son Rainforth, who died a hero in the war. He regards his two younger sons, who spend their lives whittling wood and making horses for carousels, with contempt. They are useless and not worth bothering about. He is also miserly, frets about his health, argues with his family doctor, a voice of reason amid the madness, and one day makes one of those pacts with the devil when he sells the boys for ten thousand dollars to Onofrio, proprietor of a travelling circus, who has taken a fancy to them.

It is something he regrets and the play is about how he is reunited with them, with the help of Alda Pennington, a woman described as witch, but is someone who deals in unorthodox medicines, abortions and helping people, a counterpoint to the sanity of the family doctor. The boys, now young men, tired of circus life, have run away and come back to their home town and a confrontation with their father follows .

It gets sound performances, notably from Tim Woodward as the miserly and cruel parent, and has been set in an attractive circus ring. But it has its longeurs and it is hard to like any of the characters. Alda, the goddess from the machine , played with icy charm by Sophie Ward tells him if he is to get his sons back he must burn the blood money, which he does.

The stage is set for confrontation as the runaways are pursued by an irate Onfrio demanding them or his money back. He too has problems as he is suffering from lack of interest in women ever since he purchased the boys and also consults Alda.

It is one of those plays hard to pigeonhole, although Samuel French lists it as Dramatic Comedy, which is pushing it a bit. Dramatic it certainly is but far from comic. It is about abuse and neglect, about people who are outcasts from society set in an alternative universe of Purdy’s creation, about finding love.

Alda Pennington: Sophie Ward.

Arthur Rawlings: Tim Woodward.

Dr Hallam: Mark Aiken.

Gonzago: Darren Berry.

Joel Rawlings: Sam Coulson.

Minnie Cruikshank: Debra Penny.

Ephraim/Boake: Salim Sai.

Giuseppe Onofrio: Peter Tate.

Gregory Rawlings: Joshua Ward.

Director: Anthony Biggs/

Dialect Coach: Catherine Weae.

Fight Director: Claire Llewellyn of RC-Annie Ltd.

Designer, set & costume: Cecilia Trono.

Lighting Designer: Sherry Coenen.

Sound Designer: Chris Drohan.

Production photography: Scott Rylander.


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