Wednesday 27 September 2017

Our Town

Royal Exchange, Manchester
23rd September, 2017

The Royal Exchange foyer is a vast hall, a light and spacious public space with welcoming seating and bars, a shop, exhibitions, free WiFi, and imposing and impressive marble columns, glass dome and original trading board which points to its former existence as a cotton exchange. In the centre of the Great Central Hall is the in the round auditorium, a glass and steel chamber both intimate and immense, like Shakespeare’s Globe. Visiting it for the first time this Saturday, I feel it’s what the designers of Leicester’s Curve might have had in mind: a sort of inside-out theatre where audience members and actors are in the same flow, sharing the front of house space, being able to easily walk past the dressing rooms and offices, and peer into the auditorium through the doors or on a little black and white monitor, eavesdropping on the company’s vocal warm up. And really strikingly, an exhibition on the mezzanine features artwork depicting audience’s views of what theatre should be, including shunning theatre’s sense of self-importance. The Royal Exchange pitches itself as diplomatic, a place for everyone to enjoy and participate in theatre without its reverence.

I mention this as Sarah Frankcom’s production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), and the play itself which seems to lend itself more easily to this type of production, beautifully encompasses the feel and ethos of the Royal Exchange, giving the middle finger to Gay McAuley’s taxonomy and resulting in one of my favourite uses of theatrical space I’ve seen. The different areas of stage space, audience space, front of house, and backstage are still there but the boundaries between them are blurred – in theatre and production alike. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking Fly Davis hasn’t done much with the design. The sort of tables and chairs you’d see in a school or town hall are spread about the otherwise bare stage where actors and onstage audience members sit and chat together, whilst some other actors blend into the audience responding to the Stage Managers’ request for questions. Frankcom’s production exemplifies theatre as a collective act of community. She peoples her stage with a sense of community, from spectators and performers (many of whom are regulars at the Royal Exchange), to a choir, youth theatre members and the theatre’s own company of elders. At times, we see actors running out of the space into the café dispersing in between the tables as if fleeing through the town. Large lighting banks around the auditorium shine the warm light of the New Hampshire morning sun into the auditorium and casts shadows of actors circling the space onto the frosted walls.

The ‘Stage Manager’ (played with warmth and unassuming superiority by Youssef Kerkour) walks onto the stage and addresses the audience, placing us at once in Manchester in 2017 and in a New Hampshire town at the start of the twentieth century. It’s an American play, we’re well aware, but he is the only American voice on stage, giving him an authenticity and proximity to the play as we know it and a distance from the multitude of local voices in this production. The wealth of British, often Mancunian accents is appropriately jarring, and the old colloquialisms sounded particularly alien in modern mouths – ‘I declare’ being a favourite, I can’t help but think of the words spoken in a seductive voice in the manner of one of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Belles! Yet such anachronisms make the play work by highlighting Wilder’s dialogue, making us sit up and listen to what the characters are saying, as opposed to letting the words wash over us in favour of wallowing in what could be the sepia-tinged nostalgia of the setting (a criticism levelled to many misunderstood productions of the play).

Over the three acts – each respectively focusing on birth, love and marriage, and death – we see big questions about the nature of life pondered amongst the minutiae of the daily routine; heady ideas about our place in the country, the universe and the bigger picture of everything that’s ever been and ever will be juxtaposed against the tawdry rhythms and humdrum setting of Small Town, USA (cue Tim Minchin lyrics!). After starting with a wide introductory ‘setting of the scene’, the lens is then focused on neighbours and high school friends Emily (Norah Lopez Holden) and George (Patrick Elue). Although we only see snapshots of the embryonic stage of their relationship, these scenes are written and performed with such care that we connect with them despite their brevity, from being privy to their windowsill conversations across the street to witnessing a private conversation in a diner. There’s a moment when Kerkour mimes an intricate preparation of two ice cream sodas in this latter scene that is so well-observed, from popping in the straws to licking a bit of cream off his thumb, that he paints the rest of the scene very vividly. It is a moment indicative of the spatial brilliance of Frankcom’s direction that we are at once in a theatre in Manchester in 2017 and in New Hampshire, early 1900s. And if that all sounds a bit Little House on the Prairie, the scenes leading up to the wedding include a surprising and brutal amount of honesty. Wilder’s sharp insight into human imperfections, fears and the admission of flaws I found strangely moving.

It is the third act, however, that feels most potent. The notion of death is sincerely performed by the actors walking barefoot through the space. We see Emily’s funeral, her reluctance to want to leave the mortal world and her attempt to relive her memories. With a bit of design seemingly inspired from Bunny Christie’s People, Places and Things design, along with the rose-tinted, beautiful lighting from Jack Knowles and moving sound by Ben & Max Ringham, a pretty birthday scene from Emily’s youth is evoked. We effectively see her realisation that we live ignorant of how precious life is. Seeing this surrounded by the fast moving, urban landscape of Manchester, makes this moral seem a bit obvious, or twee, and there is also a sense that the concept of Brechtian ‘epic theatre’ which Wilder exemplifies offers a queasy blend of superiority and inverted snobbery that comes with the sort of didactic motives behind the techniques. In a city that has recently had its (un)fair share of tragedy I’m sure none of its citizens need reminding of how precious life is. Perhaps because of this context, the play comes across as a little naïve in its moralising. It seems that it could have been written by someone when drunk. I don’t mean that in a bitchy way, more that it is reminiscent of those big, philosophising and sometimes maudlin conversations we have and concepts we think through after a drink. Or in moments of tragedy.

In the programme, several playwrights have written a bit on why it’s one of their favourite plays. Their short few paragraphs probably articulate what’s distinctive and powerful about the play more than my review can. I suppose it’s considered a masterpiece for its mix of scale and the mundane, its hope, and its evocation of the here and now (the universal) in its depiction of distinctly someplace else. For the playwrights in the programme, Our Town seems to be a piece to which they keep returning. Perhaps I too need to revisit the play to be more enamoured by it. And if not the play, the Royal Exchange is a space that I certainly will want to return to again and again.

Our Town plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 14th October, 2017.

Patrick Elue and Norah Lopez Holden in Our Town.
Credit: Stephen King

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