Our Town at the Almeida
Our Town is the creation of Pulitzer Prize playwright and author Thornton Niven Wilder, which took audiences by surprise in the late 1930s. Wilder removed the “fourth wall” in theatre by introducing a stage manager as narrator, elevating spectators to a higher level of consciousness as they witnessed the lives of small-town folk in a small town.
Renowned director and actor David Cromer takes this idea and runs away with it. Totally stripped back, the audience is so intertwined with the production that Wilder’s deeply meta-theatrical play is carried to an altogether new plane, framing the beautiful narrative as if by an embellished gilt edge.
With barely there props and the action taking place in the midst of the audience, Cromer as Stage Manager talks to us as he too watches the Webb and Gibbs families go about their everyday lives, squabbling siblings, frustrated mothers, lacklustre relationships, secret street gossiping about the local organist’s drinking problems, staring up at the moonlight. “It’s a very ordinary town”, Webb (Richard Lumsden) tells us.
It may be an ordinary town in New Hampshire, USA in the early 1900s, but it’s a stark reflection of our lives today. And that’s the brilliance of Wilder’s narrative and the success of this Wilder-Cromer amalgamation. Cromer understands the beauty of Wilder’s work, who described his play as “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life”. Wilder’s words, so poignant, resonate across decades and continents, needing little else than to simply be spoken. Actors dressed in contemporary clothes using ranges of dialect from American twangs to Scottish drawls, and vocal directions that reflect how, as observers, we zone in and out of other people’s conversations and lives, gives Wilder’s play the breadth it demands – as if one genius has appended more genius to another genius. The result is simply genius.
Cromer’s talent seems to know no bounds: his acting is powerful. Commanding the audience, like puppies we lap out of the palm of his hand, hanging on to his every word as the atmosphere reverberates with meaning despite the blatant lighting. Overall the acting is strong across the board; Anna Francolini (as Mrs Gibbs) and Katie Dickie (Mrs Webb) both show authentic emotions as strained and unfulfilled mothers and wives. Annette McLaughlin is funny and true as an over-talkative wedding guest – we all know the kind, who enjoy gushing over the sentimentality – and Laura Elsworthy as Emily Webb although sometimes a touch abrasive, stirs the audience.
Simply spellbinding, this play will have you see things differently. As it moves through its three acts, we observe ourselves as if ghosts looking on at life itself – a testimony to the genius of the final act – and Our Town becomes our town right up until the lights go out and Cromer bids us all goodnight.
Our Town is on at Almeida Theatre until 29th November 2014, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Our Town here: