It’s been 75 years since Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play was first performed on Broadway. Now, he’s the only playwright performed more than Shakespeare, with a minimum of one production of Our Town going on per day in the US. Therefore, the King’s Head Theatre has a great honour in staging the official London revival for the anniversary celebrations.
Straight off the bat you can see why the show was so ground breaking in its day. Deliberately metaphysical and sparse, the entire thing is narrated by a Stage Manager (Simon Dobson) interacting with both the play’s characters and the audience. Neil Gordon’s set is only but a few chairs and table, and a tree, with everything else mimed or imagined. This is by no means your average piece of theatre nowadays, let alone back then. Admittedly it’s still a little difficult to settle in to. But when you do, you appreciate its innovation in how it effectively frames the story.
This means that director Tim Sullivan and lighting designer Paul O’Shaughnessy really have their work cut out for them in making sure that, despite the absence of much of anything, they can create a piece that engages the audience. Sullivan really manages to somehow make the tiny jut/round theatre space feel like a sprawling neighbourhood, never making it feel too cramped, but also cosy and homely when it needs to be. His use of ladders in the first act also is a wonderful use of hidden levels which is not only visually striking, but emotively effective. O’Shaughnessy’s lighting is as simple as the play itself, toying mostly with lights and darks rather than an array of colours. But it really comes into its own in the third act to create not just a scene but also augment an emotion.
Sullivan also has a good cast behind him too. For instance, Dobson is incredibly energetic and engaging as the Stage Manager, and Ben Z. Fuiava as Mr. Webb is incredibly charismatic with an indomitable grand presence that makes him a particular pleasure to watch. But it’s Zoë Swenson-Graham as Emily Webb who really captures the whims and dreams of a young rural American girl, and seizes the opportunity to really astound in the final portion of the play with a deep and sensitive approach to her final speech that is sincerely affecting.
But what makes this performance of such an acclaimed text peter out into mediocrity is that something has gotten lost in translation in its journey across the Atlantic and down the decades. Whilst Sullivan’s direction makes it easy to imagine the physical town and the humble homes of its inhabitants, it’s difficult to be convinced that this is 1900s America. One reason for this is that the whole cast speak in their natural non-American accents; with the exception of Swenson-Graham who is actually American. It’s great that such an international cast are involved in this effort to make a truly cosmopolitan interpretation, and we can be thankful that Sullivan has opted for us not to endure dodgy accents. But it means that we forget it’s very specifically about a time and place in America, and because of this it doesn’t quite work.
Back in 1938, Wilder managed to capture an enduring essence of American life, and exploit it to great success. But we don’t quite see what that quality is, here. There’s something latent in his exploration of American monotony that this production hasn’t quite found, and therefore everything just seems mundane despite the enthusiasm of everyone involved. With the exception of Swenson-Graham, as able as the cast are you don’t feel that they quite comprehend that quality either, compounding the difficulty in making a non-American audience connect with the play enough to make it entertaining.
The conclusion to the play, however, is universal. Melancholy and philosophy are concepts without borders, and Wilder’s machinations are really quite profound. But whilst it’s interesting to see how this provocative epilogue ties into the first two acts, the fact that they weren’t particularly exciting means that this climax isn’t as satisfying as it could be.
It’s a good production of a classic, but as it doesn’t quite recreate what it is that makes this text outstanding. Though very well staged, it’s ultimately a less than exciting novelty performance of a theatrical paragon.
Our Town runs at the King’s Head Theatre, London N1 1QN, until 20 July 2013. Tickets are £20.50-£25 (concessions available). To book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.