They say that, since it premiered more than eight decades ago, not a day has gone by that Our Town hasn’t been performed somewhere in the US, such is its canonical status there. It’s not quite as popular across the Atlantic, but Brits haven’t exactly been starved of Thornton Wilder’s meta-theatrical homage to everyday America – it was revived in Manchester two years ago, and at London’s Almeida in 2014.
Gate Theatre artistic director Ellen McDougall’s revival for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – the venue’s first production this summer – plays it pretty much exactly as Wilder wrote it: a bare stage, very few props, and a commendably diverse ensemble of 19 plain-clothed performers to populate Thornton’s fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners. And that, to put it bluntly, is its problem.
Wilder’s play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, and it was considered relatively radical back then: an experimental, three-act drama about rural New England at the turn of the last century, in which the actors slip in and out of character and frequently break the fourth wall to explain events, but which, for all its formal invention, was still stuffed with wholesome, homespun wisdom and Good American Values – almost a latter-day version of Jim Cartwright’s Road.
It’s the sort of play that’s ripe for being pulled apart and mucked around with today, accustomed as audiences are to meta-theatrical high-jinx, and rightly cynical as we are about the ethical principles of small-town America. McDougall doesn’t really touch it and her revival feels a bit out-of-touch as a result. A bit of a missed opportunity. A bit pointless, truth be told.
It has nice moments. There’s a makeshift charm to the first act, when Wilder sketches out the daily life of Grover’s Corners’ inhabitants – the sights and sounds of the town conjured up with an assortment of rattles and whistles. And there’s a playful poignancy to the third, when, 12 years later, the town’s ghosts sit and watch their surviving relatives grieve. McDougall occasionally elevates proceedings with haunting choruses.
The cast can’t be blamed. Laura Rogers is the Stage Manager, our helpful host for the evening who supplies everything from geographical detail to characters’ backstories. It’s a tough ask, keeping all that exposition engaging, but she excels in what is traditionally a male role with sparkly elan, and just the right hint of mischief. There are decent performances, too, from Arthur Hughes as the shy, squeaky George Gibbs, and from Francesca Henry as his bright, bubbly childhood sweetheart Emily Webb.
It’s not enough, though, to prevent this feeling like an anachronistic evening. The plainspoken philosophising has lost its profundity, and the meta-theatricality has lost its magic. This is not our town.