For the last few months, London has been obsessed with the classic American drama and in an attempt to diversify, producers are taking risks on a greater variety of plays, risks that are paying off. While Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman are frequently revived the fresh vision of the Old and Young Vic respectively have reorientated our perspective on these famous pieces, while lesser-known work including The Price and The American Clock also made recent appearances in the West End. The Tennessee Williams back-catalogue has been equally well-plundered with a very nice revival of Orpheus Descending arriving at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week, a new West End version of Night of the Iguana in June, an evening of one act dramas at the King’s Head in July and next week a new version of The Glass Menagerie set in an African-American household.
Of course Williams and Miller’s fame and reputation will always sell tickets, even for their less illustrious work, but other writers can be a harder sell, so it’s interesting that the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has chosen to revive Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town which, despite its Pullitzer Prize, is not so well known in the UK. Wilder is one of the most prolific American writers you’ve probably never heard of, penning numerous plays and novels as well as a single film between 1926 and 1973, earning him a total of three Pullitzers – two for playwriting and one for a 1927 novel.
It’s certainly an interesting choice for the Open Air Theatre in what promises to be a season of interesting choices, not least Jamie’s Lloyd’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in August. Our Town is a both a strange and almost poetic experience, described as a meta-theatrical work, it uses the conventions of theatre to examine everyday life in small-town America while simultaneously commenting on the limited nature and understanding of human existence. Guided by the “Stage Manager” who directly addresses the audience, dispassionately narrating both the lives of the characters in the years between 1901 and 1913, and the geographical context of the fictional town that pointedly limits their entire existence.
Directed by Ellen McDougall, this new production takes a little while to get used to, particularly as Wilder’s style is to tell not show. The Stage Manager character is a calm and authoritative guide, but deliberately has no distinct personality of her own, she’s not trying to sell the brilliance of the town or in any way criticise the community Our Town reveals, but like the Chorus in Henry V, her purpose is to set the scene, asking the audience to imagine the layout of the town and passing of the years as she guides us through the three thematic Acts – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity.
Although much later than Wilder, the style is reminiscent of several films in the late 1940s and early 1950s that used voice-over narration to control the story, largely in film noir but occasionally in comedies as well. Equally, Lars von Trier’s Dogville comes to mind – which also used a narrator – in which the activities of a town are inferred rather than shown, and McDougall’s production is a similarly and purposefully alienating experience. As with these examples, Wilder doesn’t want the audience to become too embroiled in the minutia of living, the characters are deliberately thin and cipher-like, and the narrator is a device employed to keep us on the outside of the play. Instead, the cumulative and overall effect of Wilder’s play is to make the audience question the value of living quietly “two-by-two” as everyone else does and what more there could be.
The strength of the Open Air Theatre’s production is in its slow-build effect, that over the course of 2 hours reaches a meaningful conclusion. The final Act is by far the best, set several years after the previous events as the dead reflect on their former existence and the freedom that comes from no longer being alive. A new member unexpectedly joins their ranks who clings to the idea of their old life, desperate to go back and relive one day, despite advice to the contrary. For the first time, at this specific moment, McDougall and designer Rosie Elnile introduce a small detailed room, a confined space that quickly feels more like a trap than the happy memory the character hoped for.
Wilder deliberately conjures almost everything the audience needs to know within the text, so throughout the play very little staging is required. Elnile has filled the stage at the Open Air Theatre with raked seating, a curious decision that distracts from anything else and makes it far harder for the audience to imagine the store fronts, houses and hills that the Stage Manager asks us to picture. Its purpose, assumedly, is twofold, to reflect our own lives back at us, a mirror of similar flip-up seats to the ones we’ve paid to sit in, and possibly also to imply the 2000 other residents of Grover’s Corner referenced in the story.
Throughout the play, characters sit in different seats at various levels of the seating rig, make use of two small balconies to suggest windows and the aisles as though coming down to breakfast. It’s all been clearly choreographed by McDougall to spread the non-speaking actors around the scaffold-like construction to physically separate them and us from the action. But it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination to fill in the gaps and, as you’re trying to adjust to Wilder’s style in the 90-minute first half that combines Acts I and II, it dwarfs the scenes on the stage in front, so rather than facilitate the play the design is more often at odds with it.
Other approaches are less intrusive, and the performers wear modern clothes in a variety of bright colours apart from the narrator in black. At the start the actors line-up and the Stage Manager introduces them by their real name stating which character they will perform – this and the lack of period setting support Wilder’s desire not to immerse the audience in the story, actively preventing the theatrical illusion from taking hold from the start to ensure that we see ourselves and the broader themes about life and community reflected on the stage.
As the Stage Manager Laura Rogers is a friendly but authoritative narrator. Taking Wilder’s cue, Rogers makes no obvious comment on the town and its people, the lines are delivered without sentiment or obvious allegiance to the area or any people as though the Stage Manager is a detached observer factually describing what she sees. Rogers engages well with the audience – the only character to do so directly – and is our tour guide around the world of the play, stopping scenes, creating new locations and occasionally playing some of the supernumeraries including the doddery owner of the soda shop.
We are not particularly expected to invest in the life of the townsfolk which is a tricky position for the rest of the cast. Their purpose is to represent the rolling nature of life, of births, marriages and deaths, of getting-up to make the family breakfast everyday for forty year while waiting for the paperboy. Nonetheless, they must imply the reality of lives they represent and that there are real people living like this all the time who, as Wilder suggests, are so drawn into the routines and expectations of society that they are perhaps unable to see life in perspective and, separately, its value.
Nominally, the audience follows two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs; Karl Collins and Pandora Colin as Dr and Mrs Gibb are pillars of the town and good friends with neighbours Thusitha Jayasundera and Tom Edden as Mrs and Editor Webb, the owner of the local newspaper. Together they are the picture of ordinary American society in the early twentieth century, the men work in respectable jobs, the women cook and raise the children, normal, unremarkable, decent families ordered by an externally-imposed structure to their day, none of them thinking beyond the preparations for dinner or disapproving local gossip about the drunken choir master (an amusing Peter Hobday).
We follow their children George Gibb played by Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry as Emily Webb who share homework tips as teenagers before eventually marrying. Both convey the innocent enthusiasm of the school child morphing into shy lovers-to-be. Hughes has a particularly good scene with Edden as a future son-in law asks advice about marriage from Mr Webb on his wedding day, working through the doubts. Henry’s Emily comes into her own in Act III as the story takes her character in a different direction which allows her greater time to reflect on her life in which Henry suggests well both the enthusiasm for it and the pain it causes.
The staging choices in Our Town do impede the action to a degree, making it harder for the audience to imagine the streets and countryside that the Stage Manager describes to us, and given the backdrop of Regent’s Park it seems a shame to cover it up. All the actors have microphones but with so large a seating rig it’s not always instantly obvious who is speaking as the sound comes from the side speakers, and some of the general town scenes become lost. Over time, and especially by Act III, Our Town does start to work its magic and the audience sees Grover’s Corner as a place people live all their lives, where even the hooting railroad becomes nothing more than a symbol of freedom that no one ever uses.
With two more previews to go, Our Town has a little work to do to find a clearer rhythm for Acts I and II, working within the confines of the slightly restrictive staging they have chosen. It was a cold May evening and a number of people departed at the interval, but this production of Our Town is still a worthwhile and interesting experience. Wilder’s writing feels as fresh and innovative as it must have done in the 1930s and taking an early season risk on a less conventional play ultimately pays off. Most importantly, this new desire to look beyond the well-known classics is creating opportunities to rethink our relationship with the theatre past and, through new approaches to diversity and inclusion, reimagine them for the future.