Pros: A fresh and inventive revival of a classic work of American theatre.
Cons: The cast’s blend of British regional accents somewhat breaks the illusion of being in small-town America.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and author Thornton Wilder, Our Town was first performed on Broadway in 1938. It has been a mainstay of American theatre ever since. Set in the fictional ‘every town’ of early 1900s America, Wilder’s play is a poignant rumination of the bittersweet transience of human life.With its pared down stage direction and direct narration, this latest incarnation at the Almeida proves this is a show which can remain fresh to modern audiences.
This is a testament as much to the art of Wilder’s story telling as it is director David Cromer. Having completed an award winning run with the play in 2009, Cromer has become a deft hand at recreating the stark aesthetic and subtle direction Wilder intended. If you are unfamiliar with the play its unconventional format will catch you off guard. When Cromer steps in to begin his authoritative narration as the omnipresent stage manager, I was unsure as to whether the play had begun. There was no discernible stage, just a simple sketched set of a few tables and chairs casually arranged in the middle of a brightly lit auditorium.
As the actors of our fictional small town of ‘Grover’s Corner’ started upon their morning ritual, they were dressed in contemporary clothes and acted without props. They even used their own accents, a hotchpotch mixture of London, Scouse, Scottish, and Midlands. Though the scene before us had all the ambiance of the rehearsal room, the imagery of the landscape described by Cromer was distinctly old town America. There was also talk of baseball, ice-cream sodas and ‘borrowing a dollar’. The central idea of Wilder’s Our Town is to engage the audience’s imagination and for Grover’s Corner to be an allegorical town, one without distinct borders, timeframes, or cultural markers. This sense of commonplace was what the playwright intended, but I found the lack of uniformity in accents and dress in this production detracted from my ability to concentrate wholly on the narrative. I would have liked to have seen a plainer ‘all American’ production in this respect.
The trick was to slowly peel away the artificiality of the theatre in the audiences mind and with the guidance of our narrator, instead examine the social conventions that shape the human experience. Yet, I found uncomfortable that the lights remained up for the duration, save occasional dimming to indicate night time. This is more a play with an emphasis on the anthropological than anything else. Low on action, years pass in minutes. The dialogue is as ploddingly mundane, as it is nostalgic and reflective. Most characters appear interchangeable, either vacantly resigned or dimly searching. They go to school, they go to choir practice (before the choirmaster drinks himself to death). They stay up late to stare at the moon. The sun sets and rises a thousand times, yet they are mostly always left wanting.
An ageing mother longs to go to Paris. A married man longs for his freedom. Most find themselves resigned to compromise. The central romance between Emily Webb (Laura Elsworthy) and George Gibbs (David Walmsley), is portrayed as much as a source of solace as it is a haphazard game. When a townsperson returns from the dead to visit the past, a curtain reveals the set of a richly detailed kitchen, complete with all American accents and smell of bacon cooking. Here the central message of the play really hits home.
This is a bold play that reminds us that there is beauty in the commonplace. Though played at times with too a cool sense of clinical detachment, this is a strongly acted production everyone should see.
Written By: Thornton Wilder
Director: David Cromer
Booking Until: Runs until Sat 29th Nov 2014
Box Office: 0207 359 4404
Booking Link: http://www.almeida.co.uk/events/