Our Town at the Open Air Theatre review ****

Our Town

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 23rd May 2019

Now I’ll be honest, until I started taking this theatre malarkey seriously, I had only the faintest idea of what Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, Our Town, was about. And even going in to this production at the Open Air I confess to some scepticism as to the reasons why it is so highly regarded. I am a sucker for “meta-theatre”, fiddling around with the realms of what is possible on stage and breaking all the naturalistic rules of theatre, but this still sounded a little too, well, American and homespun, and I couldn’t quite see how it would elevate itself it to something more profound. Still this is what the experts told me it would do and I, for one, choose not to ignore the experts, (especially when it comes to, for example, cardiac surgery – for, without one such expert, you wouldn’t be reading this).

Well I can report that the experts, once again, do know what they are talking about. Written in 1938 OT tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corner in the years 1901 to 1913, (I gather the photo above is taken from the original Broadway production). The play is set in the theatre in which it is being performed, designed here by Rosie Elnile as simply a bank of temporary seats at the back of the Open Air stage, and we have a narrator in the form of the theatre’s stage manager (Laura Rodgers) who guides us through the characters and the scenes, addresses us directly, introduces specialist “speakers” and fields “questions” from the audience. With the exception of one scene the cast is in modern dress and there is minimal use of props, largely just a couple of table and chairs to symbolise the two main households, the Webb’s and the Gibbs’s, and plenty of miming.

Thornton Wilder apparently insisted that the play “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely,” a request that director Ellen McDougall, AD at the Gate, sticks to with the exception of shifting the “action” from 1938 to an even more timeless today.

Act 1 centres on the daily life of the town, waking up to a normal day in 1901. We get lectures on the history and geography of the town, (one of many reasons why the swot Tourist took to the play), and we meet the main protagonists Frank Gibbs (Karl Collins), the town doctor, his wife Julia (Pandora Colin) and their two children, sporty, tearaway son George (Arthur Hughes) and younger sister Rebecca (Miriam Nyarko), Charles Webb (Tom Edden), editor of the local paper, wife Myrtle (Thusitha Jayasundera) and their bookish daughter Emily (Francesca Henry) and younger brother Wally (I think Tumo Reestang in this performance). Act II concentrates on the courtship and wedding day of Emily and George in 1904. The mood changes in Act III, in 1913, when we are taken to the cemetery outside Grover’s Corner and see who has passed in the intervening years including Emily, who returns to life to look back, regretfully, on her 12th birthday.

This is when the deep stuff about how to live life to the full when it is so short, and how we are all connected in time and place, and out into the cosmos, is let loose. You would be forgiven for thinking this might come over all schmaltzy and, trust me, the cyclical Tourist is ever alert to such manipulation. It does not though and that is where the play most confounds. It was a pretty hot day at the Open Air, and the Tourist foolishly swapped shade for view, and the matinee crowd was the usual bunch of us old and economically inactive and the reluctant school-teens. So I can’t pretend this was some massive communal epiphany. Nonetheless the messages that Thornton Wilder wraps up in his deliberately “simple” meta-play do resonate and I now understand why the play is so highly regarded and so oft performed especially in the US.

I can see how some might not want to go beyond the moral homage to a simpler, more “authentic” past, with a central love story and a sad ending, but it is also hard to avoid the way Wilder stretches, examines and undercuts this surface reading and not just through formal experimentation. I have banged on before about how American art, in its broadest sense, explored in the inter-war years the dichotomy of modern, urban America and its mythic, rural past. This seems to me to spring from the same well. There may not be an explicit nod to the darkness which was to befall Europe, from which the US largely escaped, but there are, as there were so effectively in Annie Baker’s John, ghosts from the Civil War past as well as references to the coming depopulation and the stultifying effects of conformity to home, hearth, gender roles and church.

Some of the proper reviews have a bit of a dig at the production precisely because of its fidelity to Mr Wilder’s original intention. I disagree though, as I say, not having seen it before meant there was no novelty to wear off. Ellen McDougall is not a director who fights shy of radical theatre, (she was assistant to Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliott and her first production at the Gate, The Unknown Island was a metaphorical riot), but here, outside of the diverse 19 strong cast, the female stage manager, casual clothes and a few, well placed, choruses, as I say, she seems to play it pretty straight.

I suppose you could go all gung ho and start meta-ing the meta and conjuring up all sorts of allusions to darker times. (What is it with everyone in the theatre aching for contemporary relevance and proof that we live in dangerous times anyway. I am not saying our world today doesn’t have some Grade A wankers in positions of power but I would rather live here, now, than as a slave in C5 BCE Athens, a factory worker in C19 Manchester or a homosexual in Nazi Germany). I also accept that this might not, unusually, be a work that benefits from the Open Air setting, though Act III might be enhanced by the twilight of an evening show.

But I see it worked for Billers in the Guardian and that’s good enough for me. I was already a big fan of Laura Rodgers who stood out in Pressure, Rules for Living, Winter Solstice and Tipping the Velvet and I was also struck by Francesca Henry who appeared in another production directed by Ellen McDougall, The Wolves. Karl Collins and Arthur Hughes also managed to create character beyond imitation. This is though, an ensemble piece, and the whole cast stepped up.

(P.S. I was never going to be unaffected by the wedding of a young Gibbs, some three weeks after the real thing).

The Wolves at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

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The Wolves

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 26th October 2018

…. or 3 stars if you would prefer the opinion of LD which may be more relevant since she should have a greater affinity with the subjects of Sarah DeLappe’s novel debut play. The SO similarly enjoyed the production but was less enthusiastic than the Tourist. Thus proving that association with the subject/object in theatre may not always be the best indicator of potential satisfaction.

It was very heartening to see a full, and young, house at TRSE drawn in, I would guess by the subject, and by the reputation of the play. I have remarked before on just how attractively Nadia Fall’s first season as AD at the TRSE is shaping up what with this, The Village just gone, and The Unreturning (by Anna Jordan and produced by Frantic Assembly), Equus (from English Touring Theatre) and August Wilson’s King Hedley II (with Lenny Henry), to come.

So what’s to like about The Wolves. First off the subject. 9 diverse young women who are part of an indoor soccer (that’s football to you and me) team in middle, middle America. Second the dialogue. Their animated conversations centre on what is important in their lives. School, families, relationships, futures, politics, emotions, well-being, fears, frustrations. With 9 characters across 90 minutes, each carrying some specific trait relevant to their age and gender it was probably too much to ask that they become fully rounded individuals, but I certainly wanted to hear them. We laugh with, not at them, adult perspectives are peripheral, and the specifics of identity, obstacle and dilemma are not rammed down our throats. Not wives, not daughters, not girlfriends, not objectified, not victims.

This the play, with one minor exception, sails through the Bechdel test: there are other new plays emerging which featured strong, determined young women, but they are still few and far between. At least it would sail through the test if the women were named. For Sarah DeLappe has deliberately eschewed giving the women names, instead they refer to their kit numbers. This, together with the fact that each scene is played out during their warm-ups ahead of their competitive games, complete with movement guided by Ayse Tashkiran and ball skills courtesy of West Ham, (no comment from this Spurs fan), creates an echo of the military boot camp at the outset of a war movie, as Sarah DeLappe intended. Without of course the violence and toxic masculinity.

Rosie Elnile’s set, artificial turf enveloped by bright green inflatable walls, is striking, though this and the bright lighting and abrupt sound of Joshua Pharo and the Ringham brothers, brings a harshness which detracts from the musicality of the movement and dialogue. There is no connection to a world out there, (their grasp of global geo-politics is deliberately restricted), not a problem for yours truly, but this is I think what left LD a little perplexed. There is a plot of sorts, new player turns up to unsettle the equilibrium of the team, and a twist at the end, but even a director of Ellen McDougall’s imagination, cannot quite prevent it from feeling a little contrived and tacked on.

Now I am a shocker for identifying the authenticity of accents. I fake a bit of Mockney to make myself feel more “working-class” which is truly pathetic, and deep down, you can still hear the Devonian roots in me straining to get out, but I am about as boringly Home Counties as it gets. So, for the first couple of scenes, I was convinced that the cast was the real deal having come over en masse for the run. Nonsense obviously, made more so when it dawned on me that I had seen several of the actors before: Seraphina Beh (Leave Taking and Parliament Square at the Bush), Nina Bowers (Twilight at the Gate), Rosie Sheehy (Escape the Scaffold and The Hairy Ape) and Rosabell Laurenti-Sellers (at the Guildhall where she trained). They, and the rest of the cast, Annabel Baldwin, Lauren Grace, Francesca Henry, Shalisha James-Davis and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, were just so convincingly American, thanks to Michaela Kennen’s voice guidance. Preserving the balance of the ensemble, whilst sketching out the characters and, to paraphrase the mighty Harry Redknapp, “f*cking running around a bit”, is an exacting challenge but each and every one of the cast rose to it.

So for me a success because I got to see into an unfamiliar, yet recognisable, place in a witty and dynamic way. Maybe less interesting to LD precisely because it is familiar, in which case the fact that the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and the various “secrets” that are revealed about each of the young women are never properly developed, was more of a drawback. Team sport as metaphor for life is beyond cliche but Ms DeLappe has smartly subverted the trope by omitting victory or defeat. I will be very interested to see where she goes next.