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Somerset Maugham’s The Circle comes to Chichester later this month after a much-praised run at London’s Orange Tree Theatre.

This sparky comedy of manners has previously been produced twice at Chichester Festival Theatre, in both 1976 and 2008. Remarkably, Susan Hampshire appeared in both productions, playing the daughter, Elizabeth, in 1976 (opposite, with Martin Jarvis), and Elizabeth’s mother, Lady Kitty, in 2008 (above right, with Richard Lintern). Lady Kitty is played in this new production by Jane Asher, who is pictured above with Clive Francis and Nicholas Le Prevost. The Circle originally opened in the West End in 1921, when The Times declared ‘The brilliant comedy is brilliantly played’, and its success continues today.

In the early 20th century, W. Somerset Maugham could justifiably claim to be the most famous living writer in the world. The author of best-selling novels like Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence, he was also a hugely successful dramatist who in 1908 had four of his plays running simultaneously in the West End. Maugham became a wealthy, international celebrity.

A woman in a red satin dress sits on a chaise longue. She has curled red hair dressed with a diamond clip. and wears a heavy gold necklace and gold earrings; on her knee she is holding a slim gold evening bag.

And yet, behind the veneer was a very different figure, a man who never recovered from the early loss of his beloved mother, whose crippling shyness was exacerbated by his stammer, and who was bisexual. Maugham’s lifelong habit of concealment led to espionage service for his country in both World Wars. He was born in 1874 and died in 1965, almost spanning a century that linked Queen Victoria’s reign with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. There is in his work a broad humanist concern that refuses to pass easy judgments and urges tolerance and understanding of difference.

Over the last few decades there have been three major screen adaptations of his novels The Painted Veil, Being Julia and Up at the Villa, and his plays Our Betters and For Services Rendered have also been produced at Chichester. George Orwell described Maugham as ‘The modern writer who has influenced me most, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.’

Read more about The Circle and this latest production, which runs from 30 January – 3 February.