Sparse Staging Makes For A Rich Experience In Our Town

Our Town, Open Air Theatre ★★★★☆

By Alice Grahame Last edited 41 months ago

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Sparse Staging Makes For A Rich Experience In Our Town Our Town, Open Air Theatre 4
Photo: Johan Persson

Our Town is something like The Waltons meets Interstellar. A very detailed examination of the workings of a close-knit community  — right down to the milk delivery, and what the housewives (and all the women are housewives...) talk about — threatens to become laborious. Just as we're left wondering where all this rustic homeliness is taking us, we're gasping at a dramatic turn into an out-of-body cosmic experience.

Ellen McDougall’s modern dress version of Thornton Wilder’s tale of small town American family life manages to be both understated and punchy. In his original 1938 script, Wilder stipulated no scenery or props, an order carried through in this production. So minimal is the staging, consisting of a just bank of empty folding chairs, that it initially appears we've turned up to a rehearsal night by mistake. It's from this that the play builds from almost nothing, to a powerful, head-spinning crescendo.

Photo: Johan Persson

We're introduced to the assorted cast members by the stage manager, played by Laura Rogers, the star of the show. She addresses us directly, her intonation subtly showing an awareness that as a modern London audience, some details, such as all the different Christian denominations living in different districts, will seem strange to us.

The lack of props or set renders the audience wholly reliant on the skill of the actors to transport us to the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where we observe key moments in the ordinary lives of its hard working inhabitants. Birth, marriage and death all occur. Francesca Henry shines as the optimistic and intelligent Emily Webb, as does Tom Edden as her newspaper editor father. The lack of props takes a bit of getting used to, the mothers making lunch with imaginary knives and pans a particularly jarring scene. There is a reason for the minimalistic approach, but it only becomes clear near the end of the production.

Photo: Johan Persson

It’s slightly odd to experience something with the amateur — albeit intentionally so — aesthetics of a church hall production in the idyllic surroundings of the Open Air theatre. But be patient. The al fresco location is put to good use. As day becomes night, the fresh air and twinkling stars provide an almost spiritual dimension to the climax of this mind teaser of a play.

Our Town, Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent's Park. NW1 4NU. Tickets £12.50-£55, until 8 June 2019.

Last Updated 30 May 2019