Writer: Thornton Wilder
Director: John Haidar
Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town is, on the surface, a look back at the sort of chocolate-box pastoral folksiness that has pervaded American culture since the Pilgrims landed: from It’s a Wonderful Life to Gilmore Girls, the notion of a small town that ploughs on through good times and bad is a familiar one.
Less familiar is the narrative device Wilder uses. For while the story is set in the 1903 New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners, the play is set now: we watch a contemporary play about a bygone life, narrated by the play’s stage manager, always aware that we are witnessing a piece of theatre.
This sprawling, large-cast epic is ideal for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s final-year students. Further expanding the cast by splitting the stage manager’s role among nine students (three in each of the play’s acts), the theatricality is underlined from the off as the expanded cast warms up on stage. Breathing, vocal and movement exercises combine with exuberant dance as the students peel off, one by one, to change out of their modern-day clothes and adopt costumes befitting the era.
Laura Ann Price’s set, a mulch-covered thrust with a few bare blocks, would be enough for any production of a play which traditionally prides itself on its minimalist need for decoration. But as the play gets underway, Price’s world expands with a beautiful, neon-edged log cabin, adding physical heft to the setting’s metaphorical one.
The virtue of a large-cast play is the number of roles it provides, but that brings with it the ease with which some characters fall into the background. Exceptions to this include Sachin Krishnan Sharma as Gibbs, the town doctor, outwardly a stalwart of the community but who surreptitiously shoots up when the children have gone to bed. So too, Arinder Sadhra makes an impact as his wife, silently screaming at how her marriage has robbed her of the opportunity to travel beyond the Grover’s Corners boundary.
Amber Gadd makes ample use of Rebecca Gibbs’s slight role as the impudent smallest child of the family. But it is the older children of Act I, the central axis of the whirling townsfolk, who impress the most. Miriam Petche’s Emily Webb has a sparky relationship with her mother (Lola Shalam), but it is Emily’s flirtatious friendship with George, the doctor’s son (Abdul Sessay), that drives the whole piece.
Indeed, Sessay is the star throughout. An unstoppable force during that pre-Act I warm-up stage, he brings the same sense of dynamism and likability to the clumsy, tongue-tied youngster as he realises his feelings for his next-door neighbour. It is perhaps unfair to single out a single performance in a showcase for so many students – but it is not unwarranted, for Sessay cannot help but stand out.
As Act II progresses towards George and Emily’s wedding day, there is a sense that one of Wilder’s greatest targets is the sense that two people bonding to each other life is a guarantee of happiness. For the couples in Grover’s Corners, marriage seems to be met with a sense of grudging inevitability – something that the young bride and groom independently discover for themselves. Director John Haidar may not quite join up the dots on that one, but he infuses the wedding scene with a sense that the romance of the day does at least offset the banality of the life together. Claire Habbershaw and Annette Verspeak’s musical direction, which gives the church choir a number of modern classics to play with, enhances these scenes as it does throughout.
The play’s final act is a markedly different change of tone, as another jump in time brings the recently deceased Emily to the town cemetery. Petche is showcased well here, as her character jumps from a bewildered, newly dead spirit to the embodiment of her twelve-year-old self as she attempts to relive her happiest moment only to find that life was not as rosy as she had believed.
An unnecessary – although thematically appropriate – amendment to the play’s final moment aside, Haidar and this young cast deliver a great interpretation of one of American theatre’s most important works.
In his lifetime, Thornton Wilder complained that the play was rarely done right, insisting that it “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness – simply, dryly and sincerely.” By that measure, he would be more than pleased with Guildhall’s production.
Continues until 7 December 2022