We’ve all seen those crushing casting calls: “Wanted: Actor with 3+ years’ experience and Drama UK accreditation. Must be able to lie still and portray a dead body for an entire scene.” It causes some relief, then, that in Thornton Wilder’s meditation on the impact left by a life lived conventionally, the most insightful revelations are made by characters who have taken a step back from the overpowering banality of day to day life. Filling the third act with a distanced wisdom that comes from beyond the grave, these engaging and unusual characters offer existential evaluations that reverberate off the personalities of former selves introduced in earlier scenes.
But in this spirited and experimental play, the ability to step back is not a privilege reserved for the dead. Dressed in modern fabrics that echo the functional denims of early twentieth-century USA, Simon Dobson takes his steps right back through the fourth wall in the boundary-breaking character of Stage Manager. Generous in his interactions with the audience, Dobson leads us through three acts that loosely track the blossoming relationship of a young couple, encouraging us to relate to the town’s wholesome, all-American routine and monotony. Dobson’s character forges a meta-fictional engagement that brings humour to the everyday happenings, and adds an extra power to the work’s more philosophical streaks. With his character a brilliantly innovative bridge between us and the townsfolk, Dobson handles his transient part with great flair, occasionally melting into the realist narrative with ease, but maintaining enough space to resume his direct communication with the audience with integrity.
At once absorbing and demanding, this play is made of clever stuff, and if it wasn’t for “Britain’s American theatre company” Savio(u)r staking such a vocal claim on the UK’s official seventy-fifth anniversary revival, it would be easy to picture this script coming from a more modern pen; indeed, until the existentially-charged third act, Our Town‘s gentle non-judgmental commentary on daily life brings to mind an episode of celebrated podcast, This American Life. Across the pond, this Pulitzer Prize-winning play is performed every night and, as it casually brushes over topics like love, anxiety and shelling beans, it’s easy to imagine that a show just like this is played out off-stage every day, in every settlement across the world.
Through brilliant casting, Savio(u)r has embraced the universality of this script, toying with the idea that this play is simultaneously about everyone and no-one. Made of actors varied in ethnicity and accent, the mighty cast flexes its way through the great tapestry of unremarkable society, with the lovers Emily Webb (Zoë Swenson-Graham) and George Gibbs (Stewart Clegg) offering a strong-enough central thread to drive a narrative that is preoccupied by Average Joe in the peripherals. From these lovers in their lightly developed romance, to a planted heckler who joins us and Dobson’s Stage Manager on the other side of the fourth wall, Savio(u)r’s actors respond well to the challenge of celebrating and interrogating the ordinary people of an ordinary town in this simply extraordinary play.
Our Town is playing at the Kings Head Theatre until 20th July. For more information and tickets, see the Kings Head Theatre website.