Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Theatre review: Our Town

Occasionally I see productions of shows I was in at University, but tonight something a bit rarer - a play I was in at school. Of course it wouldn't be quite as rare in America - the cliché about Thornton Wilder's Our Town is that on any given day there's a production playing somewhere in the world, most likely in the US. Its simple staging conceit, decent-sized cast and homespun feel make it popular with local, amateur and school productions, but if it's notable for its simplicity it's definitely of the deceptive kind. In a production that originated in Chicago in 2008, David Cromer directs as well as playing the Stage Manager, the businesslike narrator who pieces the story together out of the barest theatrical techniques. It's the story of Grover's Corners, a small New Hampshire town, in the first decade or so of the 20th century; but the Stage Manager is looking at it from 1938 when the play debuted, so he knows from the start how everyone's story will end.

The Almeida has kept a similar "community hall" design to Little Revolution, although now we're in a thrust, with corridors behind the front row to allow the action to spread out into the audience more, and Cromer's production sees his Stage Manager establish a real rapport with them.


He's also got his new British cast to keep their own accents and modern clothes, helping to establish the universality of the piece and avoid the risk of it coming across as folksy Americana, especially in the opening, "Daily Life" act that follows a decidedly average day. Stephen Dobay's design puts two simple breakfast tables centre stage for this section that largely focuses on neighbours, the Gibbses (Anna Francolini and Rashan Stone) and the Webbs (Kate Dickie and Richard Lumsden.) The second act, "Love and Marriage," sees their children George Gibbs (David Walmsley) and Emily Webb (Laura Elsworthy) fall in love and get married straight out of high school.


Though fresh, Cromer's production is simple enough and true to Wilder's text in these first two acts, which elicit gentle humour from the families' squabbles, milkman Howie's (Daniel Kendrick) invisible cow and the awkward lectures from Mr Webb and Professor Willard (Joe Bunker.) Some people might have found this a bit twee (Andy says he spotted some people leaving at the first interval) but it's the third act, "Death and Dying" where patience pays off, as the banality of what came before is what makes Our Town's thoughts on the fleeting nature of life so moving.


Directors often "strip down" productions of classic texts to find something new in them but Our Town's Brechtian aesthetic is pretty stripped-down already so Cromer goes the other way, with a third-act coup that in any other context would mean little, but here drew gasps. I found the ending incredibly moving, although no doubt in part this was because as Cromer was speaking the closing words I was remembering having to learn them myself. Come to think of it maybe it was actually an act of cruelty by our drama club teacher to make teenagers perform a play about life slipping by incredibly quickly, in the full knowledge that they might see it again a couple of decades later and be traumatised by it. WELL PLAYED MRS GABLER*, YOU STEALTH SADIST, YOU. Basically, this is quite a tricky one for me to try and review impartially, but given the amount of people wiping away tears at the end - surely not all of whom could have played the Stage Manager at school - I think this is one that, given a bit of patience, will hit a nerve for a lot of people.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder is booking until the 29th of November at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including two intervals.

*no her first name wasn't Hedda

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