This was my first visit to the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre and the first time I had seen the strangely wonderful Thornton Wilder 1930’s play, Our Town. It turned out to be a deeply personal and emotional evening, watching this unique play in this beautiful setting. Our Town has been part of my own family folklore, as my father had played the central role The Stage Manager in a 1958 amateur production in Maidenhead shortly after I was born. Over the years that followed he had quoted lines from the play to us and to finally see it performed a few months after he has passed away was an extraordinary experience.
Our Town is written in three acts as a play within a play. Act 1 ‘Daily Life’ deals with the minutiae of everyday activity in the American town of Grover’s Corner New Hampshire in 1901. Act 2 ‘Love/Marriage’ deals with the romance and marriage of George and Emily a few years later in 1904. Act 3 ‘Death/Loss’ is set in 1913 in the town’s cemetery, where the spirits of past residents are looking down on the town’s activity. The stage instructions call for no scenery and no props and in this production the stage is set with a bank of audience seats which are used to represent the hills , streets and houses of the town and from where cast members watch the play unfold in the acting space between them and the audience. The first two acts are as if we are watching the rehearsals of the play with mimed actions of milk and paper deliveries and cooking scenes. But in the third Act under the clear night sky the play takes on a more metaphysical dimension.
Director Ellen McDougall uses the space and her diverse ensemble cast cleverly with a minimum of effort to create the detailed scenes of the first two Acts and then magically transforms the setting with Lizzie Powell’s Lighting into the parallel spiritual world. Sound effects of thunder and train whistles are visibly created drawing attention to the creative process in a metatheatre way.
Laura Rogers is magnificent as the Stage Manager, creating the world of Grover’s Corner through words, breaking the fourth wall and attentively watching over the proceedings. Francesca Henry as Emily and Arthur Hughes as George are excellent as the awkward teenagers who charmingly fall for each other over a cream soda as the Stage Manager ask us to remember what is like to fall in love.
There are good turns from Peter Hobday as the drunken organist Simon Stimson, Nicola Sloane as Mrs Soames an observer of village life, Karl Collins as Dr Gibbs (George’s father) and Tom Edden as Editor Webb (Emily’s father). When Emily reflects to her mother (Thusitha Jayasundera) late in the play “why did you ever have to grow old?” it might have applied to any of us.
This is a play that reflects on life (and death) and the Stage Manager suggests that a copy of the play should be put in a new building so that people could read it in a thousand years’ time. There is no doubt the themes are as relevant today as when written and will be in a 100 years’ time, reminding us of how short our lives are and how long we remain dead. As the Stage Manager says, “the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, they let go hold of the earth” and Emily comments how the “Living do not understand how wonderful, yet fleeting life is.” While the play suggests a long afterlife, Thornton Wilder urges us to seize each day and appreciate and enjoy each passing event.
For me it is sound advice that my father might have given me and what better way to enjoy the moment than in a delightful piece of theatre in Regent Park Open Air Theatre.
Reviewed by Nick Humby
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