“You’ve got to love life to have life, and you’ve got to have life to love life…It’s what they call a vicious circle.” These are the words spoken by the fictional Stage Manager, a character from Our Town, a revival of Thornton Wilder’s classic play which is currently starting its run at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Those words epitomise the spirit of this production. Looking at life in it it’s many shapes and forms through the lens of an American small town set in the early 1900s. The dull drabness of everyday life that is put under the spotlight is illuminated, partly through an engaging way of storytelling and partly through the darkness of death.
Our Town has often been a favourite of many a theatre director, many a theatre house and many a playwright. Written just before the onset of the Second World War and performed in abundance after hostilities had come to end, it is not surprising that Wilder’s play is often seen through rose tinted glasses, a nostalgic yearning for simpler, happier times. Yet, the production notes that this is not the true essence of Wilder’s play, quoting Edward Albee (he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, don’t cha know!) “…everybody performs it like it was a fucking Christmas card!”
Our Town has also been traditionally an immersive theatre experience, devoid of any fancy set designs, leaving it to the audience’s imagination to picture the events that unfold over three acts. Holding this together is the Stage manager. He’s the one that directly addresses the audience, introduces us to the principal characters, fields questions from the audience, and fills in playing some of the roles. (It’s all a bit metatheatrical – apparently!)
Youssef Kerkour has a huge responsibility burdened upon his shoulders. In the myriad of cast and audience members mingling on stage, he is the one that has to bring sense and weave a coherent story to tell. And he does. It’s an enigmatic and at times commanding performance. He’s just the right side of affability and on the wrong side of brooding despondency when he needs to be.
Directed by Sarah Frankcom, Royal Exchange’s production is what you’d expect from a theatre house at the top of it’s game. That first half comprising of the first two acts focusing on the everyday life of Grover’s Corner, is stripped down, allowing the multicultural cast to shine through some charming well crafted moments.
(On another day dear reader I may have written at great length about the multicultural cast members juxtaposes to 1900s America, which was hardly anything but multicultural, and how this itself is guilty in looking back through rose tinted glasses. Of course there are times when to get on a soapbox and this isn’t one of those times).
Nonetheless, as quaint as it was, the first act feels laboriously lengthy in focussing on the humdrum of everyday life. The pace and vibe is similarly on the down low, which almost fools you into thinking that the tensions simmering away underneath that are excellently brought to bubble upon the surface will eventually lead to the defining moments to this production.
And surprisingly it’s not.
For Albee is correct. Wilder’s play isn’t a fucking christmas card! It’s about the folliness of the fleeting moments of life that we take for granted. And in this aspect the production comes alive. An astounding second half is an antithesis to the intentionally lackadaisical first half as it focusses on the consequences of death, not just for those that are left behind but also for those that die, and in doing so returns to Wilder’s true meaning of his play and the brevity of life.
That second half is full of joyously delicious moments that deal with Wilder’s themes. The lighting is sumptuously backlit, there are scenes with falling snow and a set that was laid bare is suddenly magically transformed – all culminating in a set of final scenes that are rich in significance and symbolism, leaving the departing audience with much to ponder.
Verdict: A thoughtful, nostalgic fueled and compelling look back to 1900s America about the foolishness of taking the fleeting moments of life for granted, a theme which is as relevant today as it was back then.
What: Our Town by thornton Wilder
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre
When: 21st September 2017