Review: Our Town at The Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Of all twentieth century classics, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town must be one of the most difficult to produce and hardest to understand plays for both cast and audience alike. In fact, ever since its first performance in 1938, it has continued to be misunderstood and misrepresented. However, there is some theatrical irony in this, since the play itself deals with misunderstanding and misrepresentation on a human scale.

It’s a very odd play, there’s no denying that, and in 1930s America would have been considered ground-breaking too.

It uses the device of it being a play within a play, the play being set in the theatre where the play is taking place, if you see what I mean. The cast are on stage and the Stage Manager enters and mediates between being the actual Stage Manager of the one play whilst narrating the story of the play to the audience of the other play. And if you’re not confused by that, you might just “get it”.

The play is very Brechtian in feel. There is no set, no scenery, miming is the order of the day, as well as speaking directly to and questioning the audience, and all the cast are wearing modern contemporary informal clothes. The Stage Manager sets the scene… Our Town is the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, USA, and at the start of the play it is 1901. The play is in three acts and the first act is nothing more than a scene-setting scene, setting the scene and seeing the set-up (apologies to Mr. Bennett). However this first scene is not only necessary to allow us to understand the two acts that follow, it is also this act that has made directors and producers of productions past think that the play is a lyrical pastiche and a yearning on the part of the writer for simpler and happier times. But the play is darker, so much darker than that, and with the second act, despite the play’s upbeat documentary nature, we get a hint of what is to come. It is the third act which acts like a wake-up call to us all. Live our every moment to its fullest and feel, and see as hard and as long as possible, because there is beauty in the little things, and it is the little things that matter.

It’s also a very brave choice of play for any theatre company to attempt, and so kudos to The Royal Exchange for grabbing the challenge firmly and squarely and giving it their best shot. The only question is; did they score a goal? And the answer to that is, I am uncertain. I am not sufficiently learned on Wilder’s oeuvre to know whether or not this production ticked all the boxes for him; I can only go off my own reaction to the play, and of those around me in the theatre. Did I enjoy the play? I am again uncertain, since enjoyment seems the wrong terminology for what I witnessed. Although I wasn’t bored, and there was plenty of humour and bonhomie within the play, or at least the first two acts. But did the play stand up and grab me by the throat to leave a lasting impression on me? No, sadly it didn’t.

I think this is perhaps due to two things which I simply didn’t like about this production. I can only think these were directorial choices rather than scripted, and I must admit was somewhat put off the play because of them. The first is that some of the audience are invited to sit on plastic chairs on the stage, and become a part of the play for those not on the stage. I really liked the idea at first when I took my seat, as the stage was full of people sitting at desks crowded together and chatting. It looked like a school canteen. I understood the relevance for using audience in this way, as the director Sarah Frankcom is using every trick in the book to make this play relevant for our multi-cultural 21st century ‘town’ and therefore inviting audience to become a part of a play that challenges and distorts reality brings much more a community feel to the whole. It almost works in the first act, but in the second and third acts it’s odd and seems wholly inappropriate for them to be on stage.

And the second choice made by Frankcom is that only the Stage Manager should use an American accent. I think I understand what she’s trying to do here too, and say that this town, these people, these situations transcend time and place, but nevertheless, as a personal choice at least, they should all be speaking with the correct accent.

Frankcom’s directing, however, is consistent and intelligent. She realises that this play is about community and celebrating (the brevity of ?) life; and this doesn’t stop in the theatre, but continues in the auditorium too where each evening a community choir serenades patrons with a repertoire that includes the hymn sung several times over in the play itself, Blessed Be The Ties That Bind.

Youssef Kerkour, despite his stature, is a very gentle character, and his demeanour – as well as his New Hampshire accent and lumberjack style checked shirt – fit perfectly. Easy to watch and understand. However, his performance is somewhat eclipsed by the stunning and superbly simple and naturalistic acting style of Norah Lopez Holden as Emily. In a play which requires a certain approach to the acting in order for it to work, Holden hits the nail firmly and squarely on the head, balancing her every emotion to perfection. 

It is a large cast play, 15 characters in total, and these are augmented further by Frankcom using members of both the Royal Exchange Young Company and The Royal Exchange Company Of Elders, so the stage need never be bare and this somehow negates the idea of adding audience members to the throng. However, the main protagonists in the play are well cast, and Patrick Elue works excellently opposite Holden as a wide-eyed innocent turning into a more mature farmer widower, with Nicholas Khan pitching his role as Emily’s doctor father with aplomb.

The production as a whole does work, but on leaving I had the feeling that it could have worked better. Just don’t ask me how or why. However, that is just my own reaction to the production and the curtain call was warmly received, so do go along and judge it for yourselves. It’s a rarely performed piece of classic 20th century literature, waiting and ready for you to take whatever you can from it.

Our Town is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 14th October.

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