Our Town*** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: October 23, 2014 in Theatre

King Charles IIIThornton Wilder’s 1938 play is performed almost constantly across America, but was rarely seen here until around 18 months ago when it appeared at The King’s Head Theatre, just a few yards away from the Almeida. David Cromer, who has already directed the play in New York with considerable success, now gives us a new version which makes the big statement that, notwithstanding Wilder’s very specific descriptions of place and time, the play speaks just as much to the United Kingdom (and indeed to all regions of it) as to the United States. Of course Wilder’s themes are universal, but Cromer could have assumed that intelligent audiences would figure this out for themselves; instead, he double underlines the point by getting the actors to speak with accents from all parts of these islands, a crass misjudgement which undermines a production with many admirable qualities. Our Town is about families and a community, but, perversely, the characters in this production are not able to gel together as either. Taking the role of Stage Manager (or narrator), Cromer himself brings a strong, nonchalant presence, drawing the audience into the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners at the beginning of the 20th Century and introducing us to its inhabitants. Act I (daily routines) and Act II (love and marriage) are played with the house lights on, with actors (in modern dress) and audience mingling and some distant action taking place on a balcony. In accordance with Wilder’s instructions, there is no scenery and this production has only wooden tables and chairs as props. The ambience is just about perfect for the play, but the slow pace and subdued performances, presumably meant to emphasise the mundanity of small town life, work better at some times than at others. In Act II, the nervous proposal scene and the awkward conversation between bride’s father and groom are both funny if read directly from the page, but, here, they are so underplayed that they raise barely a grin. However, with the lights now dimmed, the short and deeply moving Act III (death) is judged beautifully, achieving a sense of stillness that brings out all the writer’s underlying themes relating to the universe, and the place of each individual and community within it. Now Cromer wisely allows Wilder’s fine writing to do most of the work and, even when he defies him by briefly introducing scenery, the effect is memorable. Overlooking things for which the director must take responsibility, the ensemble acting from a company of over 20 is generally excellent. After two viewings, the suspicion remains that, somewhere, a production exists that will reveal this play to be a masterpiece, but maybe there is a better chance of finding it in America than in Islington.

Performance date: 22 October 2014

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