The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Thursday 21st September 2017.
May 7th, 1901: in the town of Grover’s Corners in New Hampshire, USA, ordinary townsfolk busy themselves with the mundane predictability of their daily exertions, as well as busying themselves with each other’s private business. This seems to be a relatively fresh, innocent and untroubled era in New Hampshire history, pre-dating the eruption of a world war, and even pre-dating the arrival of the motor car.
Originally written in the 1930s, American playwright Thornton Wilder made no secret of the fact that he despised the way that Our Town had been interpreted when it eventually made its Broadway premiere. Even when a line-up that boasted Frank Sinatra, Eva Marie Saint and Paul Newman was assembled for a television adaptation in the 1950s, Wilder was still unimpressed.
Our Town is a three-act play: it’s a proverbial “game of two halves”, which technically makes it a play of two-thirds and one-third. It is quite easy to see how the opening two acts could lead to misinterpretation, and why Thornton Wilder seemed to get so upset at the way his story was being produced.
As the characters are introduced and plotlines begin to develop, there is the feel and ambience of an episode of The Waltons – a cheesy incarnation of all-American feel-good happiness begins to emerge, with the brave townsfolk defiantly turning the other cheek to any rough-and-tumble that life throws at them. But unlike an episode of The Waltons, director Sarah Frankcom’s production at the Royal Exchange delivers enough cute stuff to avoid the nauseating feeling of being socially-cleansed by a patronising attempt to instil morals through ridiculous story-telling. Maybe that was what got Wilder so upset?
Whilst the first two acts are about birth and life, the final offering in the triumvirate is very much about death. The mood is completely different, dark and depressing. Ironically it almost gets too patronising and preachy, with one of the key characters repeatedly asserting that the living can’t see the value in what they have before them. It did feel like a bit of a telling off.
It isn’t too hard to see why the theatre and television directors of the mid-20th century seemed to get the wrong end of the stick according to Thornton Wilder; or maybe it was Wilder who was being over sensitive, there’s no doubt that this is a clearly bi-polar play – whether it’s rendered as a happy-clappy celebration of life or whether it’s a sombre observation on the threat of impending death, both themes are presented in the performance and thus the overall impression could easily go either way.
As has been put to good effect in previous performances at the Royal Exchange, members of the audience were planted directly onto the stage, making the cast look as if it numbered in the dozens. Individual performances were strong, most notably Norah Lopez Holden, who simultaneously portrayed the playing-hard-to-get heroine Emily as being both naive and inspirational. And an unexpected and very welcome bonus performance came during the interval, with a rousing singing performance by the Carer’s Choir and Tameside Voices – the sound of Amazing Grace being harmoniously delivered by a gospel-esque choir added a perfect touch of Americana to the evening.
Our Town at the Royal Exchange is a fresh and innovative production that delivers an astute night of entertainment by confidently wriggling free of any expected theatrical norms. It simply doesn’t end in the manner that you might expect a normal play to end, it leaves open questions, but not because it’s a classic cliff-hanger. The meaning is unclear and the conclusion is uncertain. Maybe that’s what Thornton Wilder wanted.