Our Town arrive in North London, a rare visitor to these shores but one of the most performed plays in America. It seems in the last decade it's acquired a new rival though, John Cariani's Almost, Maine having apparently already notched up over two thousand productions in the US despite only premiering in 2005. I can see how it would be popular for local and amateur companies - it's another slice of small-town Americana with a large collection of characters, although as the majority of scenes are two-handers Simon Evans' UK premiere production can manage with just three male and three female actors playing all the roles. A portmanteau rom-com along the lines of something like Love, Actually, Almost, Maine takes place in a cold winter in the titular Northern Maine town - although as its name suggests it's almost-but-not-quite a town, a vaguely-connected community that's never quite got its act together enough to formalise its borders.
In a quasi-supernatural tale, a single night sees a lot of love stories told, the residents of Almost seized by the uncontrollable urge to confront the people they love.
So we have stories of love at first sight, like that of East (Hamish Clark) finding Glory* (Melanie Heslop) on his lawn in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Dave (Patrick Walshe McBride) on the other hand finally finds the courage to admit how he feels to tomboy Rhonda (Lucy Eaton.) Hope (Heslop) has left it far too late to respond to Daniel's (Ian Keir Attard) proposal, while married couple Phil (Clark) and Marci (Susan Stanley) face up to the fact that their love has faded.
If Almost, Maine has exploded all over the States but taken nearly a decade to reach a studio theatre in London, it says something about the difference in tastes between audiences either side of the Atlantic. Some of Cariani's vignettes steer well clear of schmaltz but others dive straight in, leaving a saccharine taste however measured Evans' production is. The scene of Chad (Attard) and Randy (McBride) literally falling in love is endearingly silly (and it's nice the play doesn't stick strictly to straight couples - the script offers an alternative version of this scene for two women as well.) But a scene built around a pun on "waiting for the other shoe to drop" is far too laboured.
Overall Almost, Maine works more often than it doesn't, and a few scenes showing love falling apart or causing pain counteract some of the cheesiness of the recurring magic theme. A good cast also helps, enjoying the opportunities for comedy, culminating in a fun scene of Eaton and McBride discovering the problem with being overcome by passion when you've got several thermal layers to take off. But Evans' production also chose well in terms of scheduling, a Christmas run a time when UK audiences are more likely to respond to its gentle kookiness - I certainly can't see us embracing it quite as unreservedly as the US seems to have.
Almost, Maine by John Cariani is booking until the 17th of January at Park Theatre 90.
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.
*wait... Glory is Ben? Ben is Glory?