sat 24/08/2019

Our Town, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Our Town, Almeida Theatre

Our Town, Almeida Theatre

Off Broadway revival hops the Atlantic, its invention and power intact

Calling the shots: actor-director David Cromer crosses the pond with `Our Town'Marc Brenner

A template of the American theatre gets dusted off to quietly devastating effect in Our Town, the 1938 Thornton Wilder play that has never been especially beloved in Britain even as it gets performed in every high school across the States. With luck, local regard for the work will move up a notch courtesy the UK directorial debut of American actor-director David Cromer, repeating an assignment that brought him extensive plaudits (and a long run) Off Broadway in 2009. Cromer's trump card lies in rendering bruisingly matter-of-fact a piece often dismissed as homespun and folksy. And his British cast for the most part follow him every step of the way, responding to the specifics of small-town New Hampshire with an empathic regard for humankind itself. 

Wilder described his play as "an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life", and the result shifts throughout three short acts between the macro- and the microcosmic as befits its theme. At the start, we're caught up in the precise activities (not to mention the exact latitude and longitude) of the tiny New England burgh of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire – population: 3,149 – many of whose citizenry we come to know.

There's Howie Newsome delivering the milk and choirmaster Simon Stimson leading the congregation rather impatiently in song, not to mention the play's two most prominent families, the Gibbses and the Webbs, whose homes are represented by little more than a table and some chairs in keeping with the stripped-back exigencies of the text itself: in his rejection of realism, Wilder was well ahead of his time.

Presiding over events is the Stage Manager as played by Cromer himself, the character functioning as educator, editor and author of events all in one. (When he's had enough of a particular moment, he interrupts it.) Entering the playing space in street clothes, clutching a notepad and mobile phone, Cromer resembles nothing so much as a theatre director giving notes to his cast, and his crisply direct delivery projects something of the no-nonsense authority of that teacher who made you sit up and pay attention and maybe even enjoy school.

But it isn't long into the catalogue of life in this deliberately ordinary, largely Republican town that Wilder cunningly folds in the larger concerns that pay off to wounding effect in the final, and briefest, act. We're told late in act one of an envelope addressed not just to New Hampshire but to the "universe" and "the mind of God", and cosmic concerns course through the wedding ceremony (pictured above left) that marks out the second act not least in the spoken awareness that "you've got to love life to have life" – and vice-versa. That adage is put grievously to the test in a final act about which it's best not to say too much for those who may be new to the play. What can be reported is that an evening requiring imaginative investment suddenly gives itself over to a burst of realism that has the intended effect of sharpening the senses: the smell of bacon frying has rarely seemed so rich in tandem with a scenic coup de théâtre from designer Stephen Dobay that is as ravishing as it is short-lived. 

Cromer's prevailing conceit, working away from his home country, is to have the British company speak in their native accents, a strategy implicit in the graphic for the show which consists of various British place names dotted around an American map. That idea may seem counter-intuitive for a script so devoted to exactitude but in fact it makes perfect sense, reminding us that Wilder's concerns are presumably capable of jumping the Atlantic if they can reach out to the moon and the stars – and also rescuing a British cast from the burden that comes with capturing an accent.

A large ensemble (an Almeida speciality of late) has some truly treasurable turns, starting with Anna Francolini (pictured above right with David Walmsley as George) as Mrs Gibbs, dreaming of Paris but doomed never to get there, and Richard Lumsden as the newspaper editor who reports rather cryptically that Grover's Corners offers pleasures "of a kind". (What kind, one wonders?) An exuberant Annette McLaughlin is blissfully funny as a wedding guest who can't get over how happy she is, which doubles the shock after the second interval when she lets slip the remark, "My, wasn't life awful"; her performance is superb.

The defining roles of the teenage George and Emily, whose courtship leads them to the altar, aren't yet entirely landing, though that may come with time. David Walmsley rather overdoes the in-drawn adolescent angst of this doctor's son who yearns to be a farmer, and Laura Elsworthy is a tad abrasive even within the unsentimental confines of Cromer's approach. But those cavils aren't enough to detract from the power of a production that keeps the house lights up for the first two acts only to lower them for the tonal shift of the third. By that point, we've fully clocked not only the onstage community but the audience itself, which is yet another way that this Our Town becomes our town before the Stage Manager's final words, "Good night."

  • Our Town at the Almeida Theatre until 29 November
Cromer's approach rescues his British cast from the burden that comes with capturing an accent so they can focus instead on the text, and task, at hand

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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