Theatre review: Our Town at the Almeida
PUBLISHED: 06:02 23 October 2014
The heartfelt message of Thornton Wilder's iconic 1938 play is delivered with stunning directness in David Cromer's unaffected revival.
Wilder’s fourth-wall-busting piece endeavours to communicate the truth of what it means to be human by limiting theatrical artifice, an aim honoured by Cromer’s intimate, immersive staging, in which house lights stay up and actors wander freely through the audience.
Often played as a mistily nostalgic paean to small-town America, Cromer’s Our Town instead strips away period dressing that might act as a barrier: Alison Siple’s costumes are neutral contemporary and performers use their natural accents.
New Hampshire settlement Grover’s Corners may be evoked with dogged deliberateness, but this production balances specificity with resonant universality.
Cromer himself plays the metatheatrical Stage Manager, narrating and directing the action with dry matter-of-factness, like a jaded flight attendant pointing out fire exits.
The effect of this artlessness – Wilder’s preferred “understatement of sentiment” – and Stephen Dobay’s minimalist set is to stimulate our imagination and demand a rewarding level of engagement.
Similarly unshowy performances communicate emotional undercurrents with admirable restraint. Laura Elsworthy’s Emily is refreshingly spiky, while David Walmsley is fearlessly unfiltered as her puppyish suitor. Anna Francolini and Kate Dickie evoke the weary domestic grind, Richard Lumsden displays deft timing, Annette McLaughlin lands an hysterical cameo, and Christopher Staines’ depressive choirmaster delivers both Jonathan Mastro’s expressive music and a genuinely disquieting beat.
The absence of props results in some dubious mime, and allowing the story to drift into a more contemporary realm makes the gender politics problematic.
Yet this quietly sincere piece is a striking microcosm, homespun philosophy masking deeper wisdom. Wilder argues for the preciousness of inconsequential moments, and in asking what makes a life and how we might be remembered, Our Town is startlingly profound in its seeming simplicity.
Until November 29.