‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder
This deceptively simple play deals so effectively with what it is to be human, how we should cherish every moment and how even the most ordinary days are special.
When the play was written in 1938 its setting in the year 1901 would have made this a piece about the childhood of its original audience. In 2017, for me, it's about my Great-Grandmother's generation. A lady I can almost remember and it's this foggy recollection that resonated most with me. Many of the props are very convincingly mimed by the cast and this is how I remember my Great-Grandmother. I don't recall the rooms she was in or what she was holding, it's simply the person I remember.
The stage has minimal set, however Kevin Jenkins once again shows how little is needed to convey a sense of space and time when it's used so effectively. James Tearle's lighting is both subtle and beautiful. Act 1 takes you through a normal day in the town and the lights shifting hues are used to great effect to convey this and throughout the play.
The linchpin of the play is the 'Stage Manager' played with an engaging warmth by Bart Gamber. His opening monologue introduces us to 'Grovers Corner' New Hampshire. A small town with little to distinguish it from any other small town. 'The Stage Manager' takes us through time, introduces the other characters and also takes on the role of some of the townspeople.
We follow the lives of two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs. Most of this is through the day to day lives of the Mothers. Susan Lee Burton as Mrs Gibbs and Caroline Mann as Mrs Webb (she was the prettiest girl in town in her youth). Both are played subtly and beautifully and show how little has actually changed on the school run in 116 years.
The blossoming relationship between the Webb’s boy, George (played with a great youthful zest by Colin Ray) and the Gibbs' girl ,Emily (a standout performance by Elethea Haesler) is the basis of Act 2.
Act 3 is very moving and there is a magical and emotional moment when you realise the significance of the members of the cast seated on the stage. No spoilers here!
This is a wonderful production of a magical play. I have to give special mention to Ashley Fyfe who simply filled me with joy as the downtrodden half of a double act with his invisible horse.
On the evening I saw the play there was a large party of young people from MK Academy. It is a testament to the quality of this production that they were fully engaged throughout the entire play.
Outstanding work by all. If you can, please go and see this beautiful, life affirming play.
Our Town by Thornton Wilder Friday 3rd November 2017 Stantonbury Theatre
Rosemary Hill’s ‘Our Town’ presents a commentary on the importance of community life, and offers the chance to compare small town America at the turn of the 20th century with Milton Keynes, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Thornton Wilder’s 1938 work is a study of the fleeting nature of life and of how even in unremarkable areas of the world, the vast majority of us live our lives, taking pleasure in our surroundings, suffering trials and tragedies, because, as we are reminded, everyone has a story. Wilder is able to look beyond the horizon of his characters’ lives to the subsequent global events that engulfed them and the modern viewer picks out further threads from the narrative, which resonate strongly in our own era: the tragically short life of the young Emily Webb (ably played by Elethea Haesler) who, although ‘the cleverest girl to graduate from her high school’, never got the chance to do anything other than marry at 17 and die in childbirth at 26; then there’s her brother Wally Webb, who died of a burst appendix – echoing the current US healthcare debate; and, finally, the young men who, ‘only ever knowing fifty miles of it’, went to fight and die for the United States of America (with, again for the modern ear, heavy emphasis on the word united).
The play is immediately engaging, as the narrator, speaking directly to the audience, introduces characters and setting, moving seamlessly backwards and forwards through time, and leading the audience to their ethereal vantage point, from which they can watch events unfold.
Kevin Jenkins’ very effective, stripped-down design means that stage props are sparse, actors’ movements and sound effects suggesting the rest, whilst set changes and atmosphere are signalled by James Tearle’s clever use of lighting.
Characters’ accents, especially that of the central character, are unforced and natural, which allow the audience to believe in the period setting. The ensemble acting is well-paced, with humour and tragedy convincingly portrayed. Bart Gamber’s Stage Manager provides an authentic tone and draws the whole together.
The simplicity of staging allows the play’s ideas and characters to come to life, and for this current production to argue that, despite the differences between this and our own times, we all want the same things: love, being valued, community and a sense of belonging, yet, at the same time, that we still take what we have for granted, until it is too late.
The play closes, fittingly, with Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’.
Nancy Stevens – Secklow Sounds
Another classy piece of theatre which is both thought-provoking and moving under the expert direction of Rosemary Hill & designed by Kevin Jenkins for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company & Peppers Ghost. Nothing much happens in this play set in small town America at the turn of the last century, but it could be anywhere, even MK as we celebrate its 50th birthday. This production is part of the MK50 "Home Sweet Home" project with Grid Arts. The set is sparse with minimal props and the actors mimicking actions of drinking coffee, shelling peas, cutting grass etc. There are no bells and whistles, the expert lighting by James Tearle, does the talking. Narrated by The Stage Manager, the excellent Bart Gamber taking us through the events, birth, marriage and death that have shaped our lives since time immemorial and which will continue to do so. Once again Rosemary Hill has chosen wisely with her very strong cast. A few standouts for me are Elethea Haesler as Emily Webb, Nik Arkham as Editor Web and Susan Lee Burton as Mrs Gibbs. I must confess struggling to concentrate as the pace is slow and I'm used to high-octane musicals but it mirrors life and more importantly makes us take stock of what really matters. It is the ordinary everyday events that we need to cherish because time stands still for no man and we must reflect just how privileged we are with what we have. Rosemary Hill has the innate ability to choose such diverse plays, each one excellent, highly professional, left-of-centre and we are hugely indebted to her and her ilk for their incredible contribution to the arts here in MK.
My “Our Town” Experience
A few years ago, when I was at university, I admit I had the attention span of a gnat, so imagine my horror when I turned up to a Theatre History Lecture and was told we would be watching a filmed version of “Our Town”; a play where not much happens and where you have to use your imagination to picture the scenery.
It did not captivate me at all. Being 19 and horrendously hungover, I wrote “Our Town” off as a boring, pretentious bit of theatre and my eyes glazed over.
The next year however, in my third year, I found out that the second years were doing a production of the show. I volunteered to support the show and help fill gaps in the ensemble. Not because I had become a budding fan of the show, but because there was a chance I would bump my grades up for showing such support.
The themes of the plays began to slowly sink in. As an ensemble member, I did not really have much to do apart from sing a hymn, attend a wedding and sit quietly in the third act as a member of the dead. The not having much to do, meant I spent the majority of the acts hanging around and socializing with other cast members in the changing room. And not paying that much attention to the play.
However, it slowly chipped at me and broke the wall that would not allow the beauty and sentiment of the play to sink in. “Do humans ever realize life as they live it”?
I heard this line for five times, on the last performance, I finally listened to it, and I began to understand and appreciate it. Unfortunately, that was the last time I would have anything to do with the play. Subconsciously, I thought about it, but like the dead in Act 3, “Our Town” it became a distant memory and I continued bumbling through life.
I then heard that for Milton Keynes 50th Birthday, Peppers Ghost Theatre Company and The Play’s The Thing Theatre Company with Rosemary Hill were going produce the play. Having seen and been involved with “Austerity”, I was keen to work with Rosemary again. However, even better, at 26, with a much more focused attention span, I wanted to jump into the town of Grover’s Corners once more and appreciate the themes of the play. I could not have been involved with a more wonderful company. Usually I would have found other members of the cast slightly intimidating; however, everybody was and is so welcoming. I was cast as George Gibbs and I was delighted to be playing alongside Elethea and Rosemary and getting to know other members of the cast.
Rehearsals were always enjoyable, despite being very tired (I had to tell myself that if I wanted to carry on acting then I had to get over it) and Rosemary led rehearsals with great clarity, structure and warmth. Rosemary was full on with anecdotes and knowledge and I felt pretty much like I received a great amount of drama education that I had missed elsewhere (due to again having that annoying short attention span)
What was America like in 1900s? What would Grover’s Corners actually look like? Members of the cast presented some highly detailed and articulate research that helped give my black and white image of Grover’s Corners some colour. What was America ?
The production aspect (from my point of view) was slick. Slick to the point that I had almost forgotten about the massive amount of workload behind the scenes. When I arrived in the theatre, I was completely stunned by the beauty of the set, the structure of the lightning, the incredible work ethic of the bubbly hair and make-up ladies and just well everything.
Like a well-oiled machine, everything just came together.
I now fully understand the play. I have been able to analyze it. I now will always have in the back of mind about time wasting, about managing unwanted stress and worry and about living life in the current moment. With the rise of anxiety and mental health based issues, this play has provided for me much more simple and effective medication. As an actor, I feel like I have developed, but as a person, thanks to this play, this production and everybody involved, I now feel like a much happier person. More confident, more willing to succeed and less self-destructive in my habits in times of stress and worry. Like this play when I was 19, I wrote myself off like a loose cannon, not so long ago.
I would like to offer every member of the cast so many congratulations and thanks for being such an amazing ensemble to be involved in. There was always a sense of community. Always people supporting and rooting for each other. Lots of cuddles and laughter and more importantly, everybody being involved. The actors helped calm my nerves. I felt like I had to up my game to keep up with the talent around me and for that I am so happy I worked alongside members of the cast. No role was too big or small, everybody shone, still worked hard, and this is the type of experience I will take with me and use as inspiration for my own work.
AND SO MUCH TALENT
We smashed each performance; we managed to keep people engaged. I was happy with the turnout of young people and the relationships with the younger and older cast members. There was no barrier at all. Just people enjoying and appreciating people for who they are; which are dedicated artists.
I cannot tell you how happy it feels to have so much weight of my shoulders lifted. I smile and laugh that much more. That my friends is the power of theatre. And I can guarantee that this production has had the same kind of impact on others.
Colin Ray- (George Gibbs)
I have to confess to not having read or seen the play before - now I can’t imagine why it doesn’t have a more obvious presence on the international stage/in mainstream study. It is beautifully - but simply -profound, and this production made the central message so very powerful that I cannot help but think about it often.
As the audience, our first impression was of the set. The simplicity and tone of it was perfect - it reflected a simple life, the non-naturalistic approach and with the perfectly designed lighting was just beautiful.
I’m reliably informed that the director Rosemary Hill was also one of the actors. Not many can pull that off - but there’s clearly a remarkable standard of skill and professionalism in this production and the director carried off both roles superbly. The use of depth and organisation on stage was never anything but spot-on, and resulted in a series of lovely tableaux - the sort of images that stay with you.
And the cast. This was an extremely talented group of performers. I could hear every word and the accents were incredibly strong across the board (quite a feat). Drawn in to the world of Grover’s Corners by irresistible and charming characters, I was intrigued, amused and moved. You get the sense it was a cast who love what they do and are a real team.
The ending had many of us shedding a quiet tear as a result of the performances... not just for the characters, but for ourselves. We are just like the residents of Grover’s Corners and now we know it.
The test was this: in the same row we had two little boys of around eight or nine years old. They sat stock-still throughout the whole play, and at the end assaulted their family with questions. So great to see that theatre can engage and broaden young minds like that. The littlest lad was heard to say that the play was ‘telling me to enjoy every day and all the little things because they’re important.” That’s a huge win for Wilder, and also this wonderful production.
Young or old(er) I’d recommend this production to anyone. Just superb theatre and an important message in a busy world.