I’ve harboured hopes of seeing Thornton Wilder’s Our Town on the London stage for quite a while now, at least since seeing Sam Wood’s creaky, compromised yet perfectly charming 1940 film version some years ago. Often performed in the States, Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer-winner has never found so much favour on these shores, perhaps due to the slightly twee, quaint, folksy reputation that the play has developed, a reputation which belies the stylistic innovations and philosophical reach of this wryly metatheatrical, fourth-wall-busting portrait of an archetypal American small town at the turn of the century.
A long-running success Off-Broadway that subsequently toured to other American cities, actor-director David Cromer’s take on the play has now arrived at the Almeida. And if it’s not quite the production that I dreamed of seeing, it proves an arresting, sometimes fascinating experience nonetheless. Setting the audience on three sides of the action, in a way that makes us both detached observers and participants of the community represented, Cromer himself takes the role of the Stage Manager, a figure who’s our guide to the geography, history, and, most importantly, the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. And the production ups the Brechtian ante even further than Wilder’s text demands, with the actors appearing in what look to be their own clothes and speaking in their own (British) accents.
The result is a self-conscious “roughing up” of the play that sometimes cuts against the grain of the material: determinedly anti-lyrical, the production never becomes as moving as it might. But, at its best, the evening has something of the oddity and charge that American audiences seeing the play for the first time in the late ‘30s might have experienced. The play’s defence of the contours and patterns of “ordinary” life as a suitable subject for drama still resonates, and Cromer’s approach allows for an unforgettable Act Three flourish, one that makes the whole production come together.
Booking until 29 November. Further information at the Almeida website.