First performed on Broadway in 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town is an exploration of early 20th century small-town American life. It is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire; although, as our lead narrator – ‘Stage Manager’ – makes clear in her fourth wall-smashing introduction, our experience remains earnestly in the (glorious) surrounds of the Regents Park Open Air Theatre. The set comprises a few rows of tiered seating, the cast appear to be dressed in their own clothes, and there’s hardly a prop in sight. It’s all very meta, per Wilder’s own directions.
Francesca Henry and Thusitha Jayasundera both deliver stand out performances
The play itself is made up of three acts, the themes of which are helpfully signposted for clarity by the Stage Manager: Daily Life; Love and Marriage, and (slight spoiler alert); Death and Eternity. As the everyday plights of the various town-folk are introduced in turn in the first act, it takes a while for the central plot – the relationship of school sweethearts Emily and George - to emerge. Through the Stage Manager, we are invited to check in with the pair through a series of increasingly poignant milestones over a 12-year period. However, it is not until the final act that Wilder’s underlying thesis becomes clear. How is it that we so often fail to appreciate the simple everyday pleasures of life, and the limited time we have together? It’s an enduring message that is arguably more relevant today than it was when Our Town premiered 81 years ago, as new technologies allow us to actively disengage from the world around us.
Directed by Ellen McDougall, this production sees Grover’s Corners brought to life by a pleasingly diverse 19-strong cast. Laura Rogers takes the reigns as Stage Manager, industriously explicating the composition of the town and its various inhabitants. Unfortunately, it was in these often-lengthy direct addresses to the audience that at times I felt my own attention starting to drift. According to Wilder, Our Town should be performed “without sentimentality or ponderousness - simply, dryly, and sincerely”. However, in the charming Regents Park open-air setting, the ever-present background hum of twittering birds, rustling trees and the occasional distant police siren often distracted from Rogers’ dry delivery and steady Southern US twang; especially in the absence of any visually stimulating set design. At other times, particularly in the first half, the production fell victim to flat tone, lacklustre pacing, and some wobbly accents.
How is it that we so often fail to appreciate the simple everyday pleasures of life, and the limited time we have together?
Francesca Henry and Thusitha Jayasundera both deliver stand out performances as Emily Webb and her mother, Mrs Webb. Francesca Henry energises Emily (and the performance as a whole) with youthful exuberance and unabashed intelligence. Thusitha Jayadundera’s Mrs Webb is funny and affecting. Alongside them, Arthur Hughes gives a solid turn as the gawky and lovesick George Gibbs, and Peter Hobday is quietly moving as the troubled choirmaster, Simon Strimson.
Despite these performances and a very strong third act (where a brief burst of set and period costume is used to good effect), for the most part this was a performance that I struggled to engage with. Wilder’s script and the austere set felt discordant from the charm of the location. The intensity was diluted as, ironically, his sincere and unsentimental pronouncements served as something of a distraction from the simple pleasure of sitting outside on a warm Spring evening.
NEED TO KNOW: Our Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8 June 2019 | book tickets