Circle of Friends: Fine adaptation of Maeve Binchy classic

Warm, moving and often hilarious 1950s-set story still has resonance today


Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

A recent claim that Maeve Binchy’s classic novel is the “Normal People of its day” is a nice idea but overlooks the depth and brilliance of Binchy’s work. While both books feature good-looking college students on meandering paths to find themselves, this new stage adaptation of the 1990 bestseller reminds us why the late storyteller was so revered.

This coming-of-age tale takes us back to a conservative Ireland dominated by religion, strict social practices and romantic taboos, exploring the interconnected stories of new and old friends on their quests to find themselves.

Bubbly only child Benny Hogan (Roseanna Purcell) and fiercely independent Eve Malone (Aisling Kearns) leave their hometown in 1950s rural Ireland for college in Dublin. At UCD they meet dazzling northsider Nan Mahon (Juliette Crosbie), popular rugby jock Jack Foley (Jack Hickey) and smitten jokester Aidan Lynch (Shane O’Regan).


Sex education may have improved since the 1950s, but many of Circle of Friends's themes remain relevant today

A hasty decision to attend the Fresher’s Ball as a group sets the quintet on a trajectory that sees friendships grow, unlikely relationships emerge, capturing the essence of finding your feet in those first few months of college.

Frequently the play will have you in stitches laughing as these young people desperately try to navigate their first love and sexual awakening. One scene with Benny, Eve and Nan using analogies to talk about love and sex left the audience chuckling away – as well as demonstrating a tight chemistry between the leads. Aidan’s witty remarks and antics as he frantically tries to win over Eve are also a joy.

Notable highlights include the hilarious chemistry of Benny’s lovable conservative parents (Susannah De Wrixon and Mark O’Regan) looking out for their child. Marcus Lamb’s depiction of the sleazy would-be suitor also offers an antagonist that the audience just loves to hate.

Sex education may have improved since the 1950s, and that Ireland may have been banished to the history books, but many of Circle of Friends’s themes remain relevant today.

Towering columns surround the stage, depicting UCD's 1950s city centre home in Earlsfort Terrace

The second act pulls the audience between butterfly-inducing romance and heart-breaking tragedy, painting a beautiful story of grief and the life that goes on. Impressive singing from Purcell and Crosbie delights the audience at times of love and loss.

Elaine Murphy’s stage adaptation successfully condenses of the 722-page novel into a concise theatre piece. Even minor characters are expertly written to reflect the archetypal nun, proud father and worried mother.

Director Viko Nikci has done a fine job of bringing Binchy’s beloved story to life, while Kate Moylan and Shadow Creation’s set design is simple yet effective. A rotating set piece in centre stage allows for quick transitions between scenes which often feature the same characters. Towering columns surround the stage, depicting UCD’s 1950s city centre home in Earlsfort Terrace. Moylan’s costume design boasts flawless dresses and tea-length skirts.

Sally Rooney may have encapsulated the college affair and that particularly Trinity-experience for many contemporary students in Normal People, but this universal, hilarious and heart-breaking adaptation demonstrates that Binchy’s timeless novel can bring so much more.

Until May 14th