21 October 2014
Thornton Wilder won three Pulitzer Prizes. The award he took in 1938 was for Our Town which premiered on Broadway that same year. How unusual, confronting, perhaps even disturbing, that first production must have been to theatre-goers – no set, minimal props, miming of everyday activities, a narrator who talked directly to them, smashing the Fourth Wall, glimpses of narrative threads and small vignettes delineating particular characters. It must have been intoxicating, intriguing, inspiring. Fresh.
Done stylishly and skilfully, Our Town still can be all of those things – and more. As David Cromer’s masterful revival of the play, now playing at the Almeida Theatre after successful seasons around the globe, effortlessly establishes.
Cromer is a genius. Everything here – absolutely everything – works. Perfectly. Sublimely. Wholeheartedly. There is nothing about which to complain or quibble.
At least, that is, if you are ineligible to be elected President of the United States of America. For, as the programme hints, given the logo/icon for this production, Cromer seeks to make Thornton’s play more universal by requiring the actors to use accents familiar to and from the UK. This is, perhaps, controversial, as Wilder is considered as American as blueberry pie and, in truth, the script features rhythms and specific words or phrases which steep the dialogue in New Hampshire, where the town at the centre of the action, Grover’s Corners, is located. So one can see why Americans might feel proprietorial about the accents in use in a production of this great “American” play.
But, far from diminishing the power and effect of Wilder’s work, Cromer’s decision regarding accents pays real dividends. The clear class divides, so often lost to non-American ears, are crystal clear when English accents are at play. As well, the “Our” part of the play’s title assumes real import. This production is not about some quaint old-fashioned place in the farmlands of America – no, this is a play about us, about our towns, our people, our lives. The local accents drive the universality of the work.
But, actually, Cromer’s entire vision here does that. Stephen Dobay’s set and Alison Siple’s costumes combine to create an ordinary landscape, a palette of recognition and familiarity. Two sections of the front row become, almost, the figurative picket fences or thoroughfares of the town, which makes some of the audience there seated uncomfortable, but rams home the inclusivity of the approach to the text. Heather Gilbert’s lighting is simply magical; the gradual change of light evokes the intended passage of time and time of day. The lights themselves – made to look like ordinary household lights – add to the feeling of domesticity, of intimacy. And keeping the houselights on ensures that the audience remembers always to look at what is happening aware they can be seen, one of Wilder’s themes about the way lives are led (or not).
And, when it comes in Act Three, the spectacular design trick is breath-taking. Utterly breath-taking.
It is also this Act which sees the use of American accents in a flash-back scene, another ingenious directorial decision, aligning town history with the Narrator while, simultaneously, finding another way to reflect universality of themes while reminding the audience about where the play originated.
Wilder’s play is deceptively simple on the surface but that simplicity is merely the throw cloth – the treasures underneath are plentiful and enthralling. This is a play, essentially, about what it is to be a human being and the things that human beings habitually do, through peer or parental pressure or because they think they know what life is about, to make less of their lives. It is as confronting as it is beguiling.
If it were written today, it would win another Pulitzer Prize. No question. It’s as fresh, important and urgent as it was in 1938. Cromer completely understands that and ensures the audience does as well.
In addition to directorial duties, Cromer plays the stage-manager, Wilder’s narrator who communes with the audience and, like them, watches the actions of the townsfolk. Adopting a non-condescending, schoolmaster-ish approach, Cromer is astonishingly good, whether playing one of the small characters in the narrative (the soda-pop guy, the wedding celebrant as examples) or feeding information to the audience or interacting with the audience, prodding them into participation. He uses his native American accent – and so frames the work as an American work, while not intruding in the universality of the themes and characters. He is so stylish, so ineffably, astutely perfect, so mercurial and empathetic. It’s a magnificent performance.
But it is by no means the only one here. Every single person who appears is perfectly cast and adds lustre and pleasure by their presence. Every single person. Even those who don’t have lines. I cannot recall a more faultlessly cast ensemble. My hat goes off to each and every one of them. This is ensemble acting at its very finest. Warm, embracing, achingly honest, perfectly familiar.
There are some standouts who need special mention. Christopher Staines is superb as Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choir master who is the subject of endless gossip in the village but for whom no one lifts a finger to assist. Poignant and hilarious, Staines’ work here is pure delight. Anyone who has ever been in a choir will entirely understand the masterful way Staines depicts the endless anguish of the man teaching the various parts to the choir; it is very, very funny. And counterpoints, with electric brutality, the moments when Stimson is lost in the fugue of his own despair and cynicism.
Annette McLaughlin’s brutally honest depiction of the vapid village gossip, Mrs Soames, is especially fruity and joyous. Daniel Kendrick’s reliable milkman, Howie, and Rhashan Stone’s publicly admired but privately loathsome Dr Gibbs are delicious, perfect treats.
Anna Francolini gives the performance of her life as Mrs Gibbs, the wife of the town Doctor who slaves her day away ensuring the needs of her family are met but who dreams her own dreams while knowing they are always going to be just out of reach. Her sense of motherly anxiety is perfectly judged as is the notion of a completely wasted life with an ungrateful and pretentious husband. She is really wonderful in Act Three; spare, precise, multi-layered. The untimely death of her character does not impede Francolini’s gorgeously judged performance.
The entire Webb family is perfectly drawn: Kate Dickie’s worn out mother; Laura Elsworthy’s smart, precocious, student (of life as it turns out), Emily; Arthur Byrne’s tragic Wally; and Richard Lumsden’s superbly ordinary father. They have a vitality as a family unit which is remarkable. Two scenes are particularly wonderful: where Mr Webb imparts wisdom to his son-in-law to be (hilarious and profound); and the occasion of Emily’s 12th birthday (warm, exciting and, ultimately, devastating).
However, the performance of the night comes from David Walmsley as George Gibbs. I don’t know how old Walmsley is but he is not a teenager, yet in the first Act he completely convinces as one, that kind of grumpy, lost teenage boy with whom so many parents are familiar. Every second he is on stage, Walmsley is utterly committed, utterly persuasive and utterly magnificent. In Act Two, his awkward interactions with Elsworthy’s Emily are unforgettable – from the seemingly complicated task of carrying her books to the fiendishly awkward moment when he declares his love for her. Tender, truthful and timeless, Walmsley is exceptional is every respect. His progress from ratty lad to manly, committed husband and father is assured and utterly real. And his near soundless, harrowing depiction of crippling anguish in Act Three caps off this quite Shakespearean turn.
This is a phenomenally effective and ambitious revival of a masterpiece. It restores one’s faith in the power and magic of theatre and shows, in a very clear way, how casting actors who can act is the key to successful theatre. It makes your heart and spirit soar, although you may shed some tears along the way. Powerful. Engrossing. Unforgettable. Warm. An Our Town for our time.