Royal Exchange Theatre
Thornton Wilder’s 1938 OUR TOWN is often perceived as a cosy, nostalgic view of happier days when life was simpler and slower. Sarah Frankcom’s ensures that Wilder’s original frustration at “the aggressive complacency of the middle class” is more evident than simply a depiction of small town New Hampshire life before WW1.
The Stage Manager (an excellent Youssef Kerkour) involves the audience throughout the three acts depicting Birth, Marriage and Death with an actual sense of real time collaboration. In the opening act Frankcom goes a step further and places some of the audience on stage amongst the actors. We sit and watch life in Grovers Corners much like the dead do from their white chairs on the hill. The effect will differ for the individual. Some will be bored or irritated by the minutiae of daily life and others will be absorbed in the tiny details of everyday rituals.
On the surface the characters are unremarkable and lead insignificant lives. Emily is “naturally bright” yet naive as to the opportunities open to her beside marriage and family. Her father is a journalist yet seems to think the only news of value is local and parochial. Dr Gibbs sees illnesses but is blind to his own wifes’ hopes and dreams. Almost everyone bar the town drunk has a sense of propriety and order to the extent of almost seeming like autobots in a tidy town. When strong emotions crack the surface they seem as dangerous and undesirable as the unwanted automobiles which will literally not sleeping dogs lie.
The tension gradually builds as characters respond to larger life events. The marriage highlights family stresses most of us recognise. Fear of change, last minute bridal nerves, mother’s fears for children leaving the nest, a fathers resignation over giving away his terrified daughter are all beautifully realised. Norah Lopez Holden as Emily is excellent throughout, and the quietly distraught Graeme Hawley as her father soothing her bridal jitters while twisting his fingers in anguish is heart rending.
The final act brings together the dead from past and present. The standout moment in a set so devoid of props is beautifully realised and quite exquisite. The resounding message is do not “spend and waste years like you had a million to waste.” Pay attention to the smallest detail (notably one of the few props at the start and the close is a simple sunflower), as life is so precious and so fleeting.
I grew up in a small town where everyone knows each other, and the local shop is visited daily for supplies of milk, bread and gossip. The graveyard is home to my parents, grandparents and ancestors; to neighbours, friends and local gentry. Visiting last month I imagined them all together chatting and reminiscing on the hill above the deerpark. I like to think they would agree with Wilder and want us all to live each day like it really matters. The here and now may be the very best of what is to come.
Until October 14th