Review One by Clara Baldock
A solitary figure on stage steps into the light and so the play begins. The town of Grover’s Corners, which serves as a microcosm for the rest of world, is mapped out through the creative use of lighting and soon the audience is immersed in the bustling life of ‘Our Town’. The use of space is cleverly manipulated to function as a variety of different settings, and imaginative ways of dividing the stage in order for two scenes to occur at once are apparent from the start. The stage manager (Rose Eccleshare) plays a significant role in taking the audience on a journey into the lives of some of the characters, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. She impressively holds the whole play together however, issues of accents create confusion as the stage manager adopts an American accent whilst the rest of the cast speak with British accents. It would have been more effective if one accent was maintained throughout, regardless of whether it was American or British.
A noticeable feature that characterized the play was its simplistic set and the intentional lack of props. Wilder himself stated that: ‘Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind-not in things, not in scenery’. The minimal set created emphasis on miming which was effectively and dexterously carried out by the actors on stage. ‘Our Town’ created an intriguing dichotomy; it realistically depicted the daily routine of the characters yet contrasted this with a sparse stage which made no attempt to aid the portrayal of ordinary life. Therefore, much is left up to the power of imagination which was oddly pleasing to the eye as audience members watched with fascination at the carefully choreographed movement onstage. Although such ideas displayed a sense of adventurousness on the part of the director, they were undermined at times and inconsistencies began to develop. In particular, the third act introduced an entirely different set that consisted of an elaborate kitchen which although was impressively constructed, appeared out of place and inappropriate in comparison to the rest of the play. Presumably a symbolic meaning was intended however this was not made apparent to the audience.
A unique aspect of the play was the choir. The sound of warm harmonies filling the room was an atmospheric and rather moving addition that was a pleasure to hear after having had many scenes without music. They also sung in the interval which received a loud applause and suggested that the story the audience see unfolding on the stage, is only representative of real life and is not attempt to make one believe what they see on stage is real. The choir, led by a caricature conductor, could have been exploited more, especially at moments in which visually there was little to look at.
Glimpses into the lives of the Webb and Gibbs families was done so in a sensitive and thoughtful manner however, the play often dwelled too long on such scenes and so audience attention wavered. The play stresses the inevitable advancement of time and yet ironically, the play itself needed more momentum and pace. Too much time was dedicated to descriptions of the town and to stylistic endeavours that began to overwhelm the story. Although stylistically it was interesting and varied, too much emphasis was placed on trying to engage the audience as opposed to drawing out the characters themselves.
‘Our Town’ is filled with idiosyncratic characters that inject humour into the play and the theme of companionship is delicately touched upon through a good performance by Lauren Grant and Harry MacDonald. With some challenges still to overcome in the piece, it was enjoyable to watch with subtle nuances throughout that created the strong moral message of Carpe diem (seize the day), leaving the audience with an enriched insight into the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and dreams flicker throughout the passage of time.
Review Two by Mav Reynolds
‘Interesting’, without any negative connotations, is the best way to sum up the second play of this season. Stephen Irvine has achieved a mammoth task in co-ordinating twenty five actors in such a short space of time, and not only this, he has created a play unlike any other that I have seen at the New Theatre. Our town is a play that confronts life in its various stages, leading the audience through personal tragedy and triumph, and ultimately expanding its scope to the communal or shared human experience.
The play follows the lives of two adjacent households in Grover’s Corners, a small town in rural New England. It depicts the everyday, the mundane, the ordinary, and goes to great lengths in the opening of the first act to depict the simple normality and seemingly uninterruptable rhythm of the lives that the townsfolk lead.
As the play opens, we are introduced to the town and its inhabitants by the outstanding Stage Manager (Rose Eccleshare), whose opening monologue clearly defines and reminds the audience of the artifice inherent in the stage world. Throughout the first and second acts she will acquaint us with our principal, and lesser characters, and invite them to impart their opinions of the town. The style of the piece is methodical each character holds a particular role and function as well as a potted history. The overall theme is that of continuity of life, being lived as it ever has been, of the struggles between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and of the blossoming love between the young people of the town. This ‘rhythm’ can be clearly seen in the parallel families and most potently in the beautifully mirrored mime work of Frances Rylands and Claire Horn, who seem to represent the universal mother.
Of particular note are the young couple (Lauren Grant) and (Harry MacDonald) whose awkward, unsure courtship forms the constant thread around which loiter scenes of more situational exposition that draw the audience into the wider play world. Artistically these scenes are necessary to carry the play’s message, and there are some beautifully comic lines. They do however make for a slow first half, something that was not always aided by some slight first night nerves when it came to cues. This I’m sure will pick up throughout the week.
The stylization of this piece is of particular interest. Set is moved freely during Eccleshare’s monologues by stage hands wearing t-shirts saying ‘I’m Not Here’ and much of the set and props are suggested through the mime work, most of which is very good. My only criticism being that it became somewhat repetitive, which may well have been the point (perhaps showing the repetitive nature of life and that lack of attention that people pay to inconsequential objects). I felt that mime could have been used to greater effect with a little more economy, if Irvine had trusted his audience to buy into it.
The lighting was mind bogglingly complex. Irvine and Feavers used light to divide the sparse set, and to create the necessary circles of attention when there are multiple items on stage. The lighting was beautifully, especially in the second act, at which point this play came into its own.
The first act deals with childhood and marriage whilst the second deals with death. It is in this far shorter more concise piece of drama that all of the slightly discordant, slightly meandering elements of our town come together. It is haunting and ethereal, the choir is used to great effect and the range of sorrow and humour found by the static deceased is truly moving. In the final ten minutes we reach the crux of this plays argument – That we (Humans) do not appreciate life when living, and only in reflection do we begin see clearly the beauty around us. The visual representation of this is the revealing for the first time of a tangible set in which the opening lines are echoed. Grant reaches an emotional climax which is harrowing.
Whether this payoff is worth the slower more difficult first half you will have to decide for yourselves. Whether Irvine’s artistic decisions such as having the play pronounced in English accents (apart from Eccleshare), his unorthodox creation of tableaus such as the wedding scene, or his sparse use of props, work? – Again I cannot decide. At moments such decisions felt inspired, at others, a little forced. Occasionally it felt like these decisions detracted from what should have been the focal point of the scene, at others they brought it into sharp relief.
After an entire day I am still undecided regarding this play. It had so much that was good and yet so much that felt a little confusing, slightly piecemeal, even clumsy. This is all part of the fascination of Our Town. It is a play that raises question after question and demands that the audience puzzle it’s way through. I left with very little to say for myself for this very reason. It is a play that will surely divide opinion, but such is the risk that any production takes in being so clearly crafted. When the artist shows you their brush strokes the first question you should ask it ‘why?’ It is a risk that the New Theatre should be very proud of.