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).

Pinter at Pinter 3 review ****

Pinter at the Pinter Three

Harold Pinter Theatre, 19th November 2018

  • Tess
  • Landscape
  • Apart From That
  • Girls
  • That’s All
  • God’s District
  • Monologue
  • That’s Your Trouble
  • Special Offer
  • Trouble In The Works
  • Night
  • A Kind Of Alaska

Just to be clear I am a fan of the work of Harold Pinter. And now it seems is MS, after he joined me at this, the third instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s season devoted to all of Pinter’s one act plays, and all manner of sketches and fragments besides.

If you not a fan, and actually occasionally even if you are, they will be times when the patience is tested by HP’s particular dissection of the psyche, but this is more than compensated by those times when the combination of mood, language and meaning, or lack thereof since the one thing you can depend on with HP is that you can’t depend on anything, leave you stunned at just how someone managed to right this stuff. 

Of course you need the right actors for the job. Here we had Penelope Wilton, a late addition kicking off with Tess a monologue about a posh lady who had experienced better times, Tom Edden, Meera Syal, Keith Allen, Lee Evans, and the now plainly incomparable, Tamsin Grieg. They were, all, unquestionably, the right actors for this job.

Apart From That saw Lee Evans and Meera Syal riffing on asking “how they were”, as simple and effective as comedy gets, Girls is a slightly uncomfortable monologue, (from Tom Edden), about spanking, That’s All is straight out of the Les Dawson school of comedy, God’s District, one of these weak, one joke (Hammersmith) , anti-religion sketches that HP was prone to, Monologue, one man’s nostalgic conversation with an imagined friend, brilliantly captured by Lee Evans, That’s Your Trouble, verbal sparring from two blokes in a pub, Special Offer a curious short sketch about “men for sale” that Meera Syal got saddled with, Trouble In The Works, a Pythonesque word-play on products in a factory (Lee Evans again hilarious) and Night, a tender duet from an old married couple reminiscing about when they fell in love, which is genuinely moving and had no right to be here.

Now it is really hard not to rave about the Lee Evans when he turns his physical comic genius on full beam as he did here. Especially as he came out of retirement especially for this run. He has form with Pinter, having played Gus in The Dumb Waiter in 2007, and has even successfully tried his hand at Beckett.  But the star of the night for me was Tamsin Greig in the two major works on show Landscape and A Kind of Alaska.

In Landscape, from 1968, she plays Beth who is reliving her past life and loves (specifically an affair (?) consummated on a sunny beach), presumably in her mind, whilst her vulgar, frustrated husband, Keith Allen, bothers her and chats about the everyday before, briefly, losing his temper. The deliberate contrast, and what it says about gender, power and the inability to communicate, is brilliant. This is Pinter as Beckett. Nothing much happens, we end abruptly, and there is deliberate repetition. It originally failed to get a licence from the Lord Chamberlain, ostensibly for its swearing, but probably because the LC didn’t like HP, but when censorship was finally consigned to the dustbin of history, Peggy Ashcroft and David Waller brought it to the RSC stage. There are squillions of other playwrights who explore this territory but don’t even get close to Pinter’s insight, in half an hour or so, in a lifetime of trying. 

Keith Allen, and in this respect this is meant as a compliment, has a natural mansplaining air about him. His waspish manner, which, based on previous stage, film, TV and interview performances, fits the role here of Duff perfectly. I am trying to avoid saying he is grumpy and slightly bellicose, but he is. I last say him playing the older Hogarth in Nick Dear’s The Taste of the Town at the Rose Kingston where he similarly fitted the part like a glove, albeit there as an older man riddled with pain and regret. (And he has the look of the older Hogarth if we believe the artist’s self portrait – not always a given). 

In contrast Tamsin Greig spoke her lines, in a soft Irish lilt, through a microphone, presumably to highlight the contrast between the two “monologues”, but it also ensured we could her every breath as she gave voice to the interior thoughts of the plainly damaged Beth. Enthralling.

Then in A Kind of Alaska (1982) she played Deborah, the woman on a hospital bed who wakes from a coma after 29 years to meet the stiff doctor who has “cared” for her, Keith Allen again, and her bemused sister Pauline, (Meera Syal in a role that finally gave her a chance to shine). AKOA is one of HP’s less cryptic offerings, (though the relationship between siblings and between doctor and patient might now be as straightforward as it seems), but it is still fascinating to see how, with an economic text, the bewilderment of a “child” who has become an “adult” without knowing how or what this means. Once again TG was terrific, confused, guilty, emotional, often in the same line. Two women then, locked in the past, but they could scarcely be more dissimilar.

Once again Soutra Gilmour’s set, here a rotating cube containing “period” interiors redolent of the period when many of these works were written, the 1960s, as well as the lighting of Jon Clark and sound of the Ringham brothers is sublime, and cleverly pulls the disparate strands, and writing styles, together. Jamie Lloyd once again proves he is pretty much peerless when it comes to Pinter. With no “guest” directors the contrast between the comic and the tragic in these works was well balanced and the pacing ideal. I don’t know how much rehearsal time the cast had but this really had the feel of a seasoned ensemble. 

Bring on No. 4. Moonlight from 1993 and Nightschool from 1960 where Mr Lloyd has passed over the reins to Lyndsey Turner and Ed Stambollouian. I don’t know either play and it sounds like these might be more muted than 1 and 3 but no matter, there will be something to take away. And the Tourist, and hopefully new fan MS, are primed and ready for the recently announced Betrayal.