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).

Stories at the National Theatre review ***

Stories

National Theatre Dorfman, 27th November 2018

Nina Raine has a knack for dramatising contemporary social issues from multiple perspectives and a gift for sharp comedy observation. At least based on her last work Consent as I have not seen her other acclaimed works Tribes and Rabbit. However here I wonder if her determination to cover the ground, and to entertain us in each of the many scenes, may have ended up stalling the momentum of the whole play. As well as serving up a few slightly jarring moments. And the decision to cast, and give free rein to, Sam Troughton in many of the male “candidate” roles, whilst he is very funny, did rather detract from the central dilemma.

Everywoman Anna (unassumingly played by the always accomplished Claudie Blakley) is 39, successful in her theatre career but wanting a baby, after partner, the conceited, and fraught, man-child/mummy’s boy Tom, (our first taste of Sam Troughton’s comic range), decides he wants to split. This despite the couple investing in a couple of years of IVF. Bourgeois Mum (Margot Leicester) and Dad (Stephen Boxer), both excellent, are supportive, if occasionally a little un-PC, as is gay young brother Joe (Brian Vernel). And so the search for the ideal sperm begins. She auditions a procession of possibles (and occasionally their partners), in person as well as mail-order, whose pros and cons are entertainingly dissected, with help from family and friends (most notably Thusitha Jayasundera’s forthright Beth. Tom, who is somewhat younger than Anna, even gets to make his case for a second chance.

The direction is sympathetic, unsurprising given Nina Raine herself takes on the task, Jeremy Herbert’s set of moving boxes is neat and unobtrusive, as is Bruno Poet’s lighting and Alex Baranowski’s music and sound. All the requisite bases are covered, including the grown-up searching for a birth parent, but the narrative lacks surprise and the whole ends up as less than the sum of its parts. In making her conundrum believable, and explaining why she might contemplate some of the prize c*cks on show here as potential donors/fathers, Anna comes over as a bit wet in her exasperated optimism if I am honest. Too many ideas, not always fully developed, with a bit of awkward shoe-horning in of situation, character (a wide-eyed child, a Russian octogenarian) and her research on occasion.

Having said that, given the quality of the lines that Nina Raine puts into the mouths of her characters to elucidate her wry observations, it is impossible to dislike the play even as the lack of a killer punch frustrates. Ms Raine is particularly good at nailing the excuses that the men offer for their hesitancies and the validations they demand for their, brief, potential participation. In fact maybe too good, as this squeezes out the space to understand what Anna is feeling. Or maybe that is precisely the point that Nina Raine was trying to make.