This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
The most frequently staged play other than those by Shakespeare and one that has been performed somewhere in the United States every day since 1938; these are the impressive and somewhat surprising statistics for a work that, despite being a Pulitzer Prize winner, has rarely been seen on this side of the Atlantic and is by a writer who is now half-forgotten here. This is its official 75th anniversary UK production. Set in the fictional New England town of Grover’s Corners – population under 3,000, a single-track railway and a twice-weekly newspaper – in the early years of the 20th Century, the play is split into three acts, depicting daily life, love and marriage and death. It uses the device, novel in 1938, of a Stage Manager (or narrator) to introduce the townspeople and guide us through the action; he tells us that the history we are taught in schools is of rulers and wars, but that this play will be placed in the cornerstone of a new building so that future generations can learn about ordinary lives at these times. The play’s format and core themes were later emulated in Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas who added richly descriptive and poetic dialogue; there is little evidence of such flourishes in Wilder’s writing, except possibly in the closing meditations. The role of the Stage Manager has previously been filled by such larger-than-life personalities as Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman. They are almost impossible acts to follow, but Simon Dobson goes in the opposite direction by offering a deliberately low-key and laid back interpretation and, in so doing, he may have robbed the production of one of the play’s key dynamics. In a cast of 14 which, for no obvious reason, has been assembled from 10 different countries, only Zoe Swenson-Graham is American and she gives the most moving performance as the daughter of the Newspaper Editor who marries her childhood sweetheart. None of the others even attempts to sound American. Whilst accepting that badly faked accents can be extremely jarring, the inconsistency of accents in a play with a setting that is absolutely specific, severely undermines authenticity. There are no other outstanding performances and, sadly, a few of the actors are defeated by the burden of serious miscasting. As in the premier production, the play is performed with no set, using just chairs, tables and ladders and the actors mime actions without the use of props. The nature of the material, particularly as it is American, is such that it could easily drift into excessive sentimentality, which a British audience might find unpalatable. Director Tim Sullivan seems wary of this pitfall and de-sweetens the pill wherever possible, but, in the process, he often leaves it rather flavourless. This is the small town America of It’s a Wonderful Life, but lacking the gripping central storyline, the deft touches of Frank Capra and anything nearing the charisma of James Stewart. Students of theatre history could be fascinated by features of the play’s structure and staging which were groundbreaking 75 years ago. However, these features have since become commonplace and many of the rest of us will find the success and durability of Our Town difficult to comprehend. The statistics are irrefutable, but the biggest disappointment with this production is its failure to explain to us any of the reasons for them.