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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Our Town
Almeida Theatre  Autumn 2014

Our Town is one of the American drama's true masterpieces, all the more so because it is thoroughly accessible – it has been a staple of the school and amateur repertoires for more than seventy years. 

And this production imported from New York, despite some idiosyncrasies and straining for originality, captures enough of the play's power to deliver a richly moving and entertaining experience. 

Thornton Wilder tells the deliberately ordinary story of ordinary people in an ordinary small town, in a calculatedly plain style, and then invests it through unobtrusive poetry and stunning visual imagery with all the beauty and magic of the ordinary. 

On a bare stage, with only a few chairs and tables, Wilder conjures up Grover's Corners New Hampshire in the early years of the Twentieth Century, introducing neighbouring families whose teenage children will fall in love, marry, and experience death and what follows. 

Absolutely nothing of importance happens, except that Wilder guides us to see that everything is important. 

The most hardened will find their eyes misting up more than once, not at tearjerking melodramatic events, but at a businessman pausing to listen to birds sing, a teenage girl asking her mother if she's pretty, or a couple discovering, not that they're falling in love, but that they have been in love without realising it. 

I don't want to give away too much – while the play is part of the cultural DNA of Americans, it is less well-known here – but the final scenes offer a view of life that can be life-changing. 

Director David Cromer's production, originally created for New York's Barrow Street Theatre, takes the risk of tinkering with a classic and almost always gets away with it. 

Arguably the single most iconic image in American theatre is a scene from this play, in which two youngsters chatting from their neighbouring upstairs windows are represented by actors sitting atop stepladders on a bare stage. 

Cromer ditches the ladders, but his substitute works, as does his occasionally moving the action out into the audience, seated on three sides of the deeply thrust stage. 

An audacious reinvention of the climactic scene is less successful, more in execution than concept (Again, forgive me for being vague here, so as not to spoil the moment), as clumsy blocking and poor lighting spoil the potentially strong effect the director wants, while distracting from the most important speeches in the play. 

Earlier another key moment (the story of Jane Crofut's letter, for those who know the play) is weakened by an actress swallowing the key line, and while few in the audience could be bothered by the colour-blind casting, accent-deaf casting poses a bigger problem, some supposed members of the same family seeming to have come from different continents. 

But everything else works beautifully, from the introduction of the town and characters, through the soda fountain love scene and the mix of comedy and sentiment in the wedding, to the understated sobriety of the graveyard. 

Much credit for establishing and maintaining the tone must go to David Cromer, who not only directed but plays the role of the Stage Manager, the onstage narrator, commentator, action manipulator and occasional extra. 

With his easy conversational mode and unquestionable authority Cromer is the best Stage Manager I've ever seen.

Laura Elsworthy may be too much the feisty Irish colleen as Emily, but David Walmsley captures just the right mix of comic dimness and admirable sincerity as George, and there are nice supporting performances from Anna Francolini, Rhashon Stone and Richard Lumsden. 

The fact that Our Town is rarely performed in Britain is not quite as absurd as Americans never doing Hamlet would be, but it's close, and despite my minor quibbles with the director I urge you to take this too-rare opportunity to experience a wondrous play.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Our Town - Almeida Theatre 2014  
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