Writer: Thornton Wilder
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town seems to fall in and out of favour with directors, and yet, with its timeless themes, dry humour and sincerity it always remains amazingly relevant. Sarah Frankcom’s new production offers a powerful and solid start to the Exchange’s Autumn Season and proves that the Exchange can make great theatre without the technical wizardry that it can often over rely on to create the wow factor.
Frankcom sticks to Wilder’s rules – a bare stage, everyday clothing and simple lighting states. Our Town is staged as a play within a play, the narrator is the Stage Manager, moving people around, stopping and starting the action, and occasionally stepping in to portray a minor character. The cast tell the stories of everyday folk in rural East Coast America in the early part of the twentieth century. The play has something of a nostalgic Norman Rockwell feel to it in the first two acts, with its paperboys and soda fountains, and, in the best possible way, not a lot happens to the residents of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.
The third act deals an unexpected blow. Gone is any sentimentality, as we see the town nine years later, experiencing the grim reality of any place. Loved ones have been lost, people have been worn down by work, or loneliness, or drinking. Suddenly Wilder is delivering some tough lessons about life, about how little of it we have, and how we fail to realise until it’s too late.
The large cast is made up of a company of actors, members of the Young Company and some of the Exchange’s Company of Elders, a group older performers who take part in regular workshops and performances. They’re all joined by selected members of the audience who share the space with the actors at the start of the play and remain at the edge of the space throughout. It creates a real community that makes the town seem more real – like the extras you see wandering around in Walford or Weatherfield – and blur the boundary between the performers and the audience. It’s a great way to give Grover’s Corners a sense of being any town, our town.
A great ensemble piece, Our Town still offers the opportunity for some standout performances. Youssef Kerkour plays the Stage Manager with great sensitivity while owning the stage with his expansive presence. Kerkour is the only actor with an American accent, grounding the piece in its setting while the rest of the cast deliver their lines in a range of (mostly) northern accents. Kelly Hotton plays the bright, chatty Mrs. Webb with a great comic edge, and Patrick Elue and Norah Lopez Holden deliver a deliciously jittery teenage romance as George and Emily.
The play has a great sense of pace and Frankcom mostly delivers it well. We probably don’t need so much running in circles (something the Exchange space always seems to provoke as a stage direction), but the change in pace from occasionally frenetic to meditatively slow is something that Wilder would surely approve of. The almost passionless calm of the third scene makes the stark realities it reveals even more unsettling.
It’s great to see this classic produced so straightforwardly at the Exchange. The publicity for the production carries an image of a confrontational crowd in front of the Manchester skyline, suggesting what might be an updated and geographically replanted version. Our Town may be any town, but a night at the Exchange between now and 14th October will still transport you to small-town America to meet its memorable residents.
Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: Contributed