Our Town at the Almeida Theatre pretty much rips up the rule book on playwriting. Whether you like the results of that, well, that depends on your perspective. But if you go with it, by the end you will have witnessed a play of real tenderness and heartstring-plucking warmth.
But the first half is so meandering and lacking in any discernible plot or characters of interest that it is hard to get a grip on the play for a long time. And it’s not helped by a complete lack of visual excitement.
The stage (shown in the round) is almost completely empty with just a couple of kitchen tables in the middle. And the myriad of characters that cross back and forth are in jeans, trainers and t-shirts they’d just pulled on that morning.
So what is going on?
Well, we’ve been transported back to the beginning of the 20th century. How do we know this? Because the Stage Manager (a superbly engaging performance from David Cromer) tells us. He also tells us that we’re in a town in North America. Big rural area with a little urban centre. Only about 2,000 inhabitants.
In fact, the Stage Manager narrates the whole story, telling us everything from the mountain range in the distance to pointing at one of the characters when he walks on to stage and saying “And in 15 years he will die on a field in France.”
It’s such a strange tactic.
So who are these characters?
Well, there’s a doctor, his wife and their scruffy young boy and his sweet younger sister. Then there are the neighbours and their bright daughter. The milkman – complete with cow – the policeman, the newspaper boy… Basically it’s just all very ordinary.
And then – nothing happens. Nothing. We just watch these characters doing their chores and jobs. No great event happens, no strange new visitor arrives in town to shake things up. Nothing.
Given all of that, it’s probably not much of a surprise that on the night I went, many in the audience did not return for the second half. There was just no story to engage with. However those of us who did venture back were richly rewarded.
Our Town is a slowly evolving, warm and moving depiction of everyday people from an everyday town. We come back to the same characters but the Stage Manager tells us we’ve jumped on a few years. And slowly but surely, the stories, the lives, of these townsfolk begin to come together.
There’s the budding romantic relationship between the Doctor’s teenage son George (David Walmsley) and the bright young Emily (Laura Esworthy) from next door, the alcoholic church pianist Simon (Christopher Staines) whose drinking covers some unspoken dark scars, and the married couples musing on the challenges of wedded life.
It’s funny, it’s sweet. At times it’s sad, even mundane. But what we are witnessing is life.
Plays are usually written about great characters, real heroes who do extraordinary things or overcome insurmountable odds. This is not a play about those kinds of people.
Over the thousands of years of human existence, millions and millions of ordinary people have been born, survived, thrived and died on this earth. Yet they are forgotten, their experiences, their love never recorded or their stories shared. This play shines a spotlight on these everyday people, people much like you and me.
Given that, Our Town really pulls at the heartstrings. Heart-warming stories coupled with great performances from the whole cast. So much so that when lights went up, I caught the gentleman next to me dabbing a tear from his cheek. And I too found it incredibly romantic and touching.
Our Town is not an orthodox play. But if you do go, stick with it through its slow, slow beginnings as you will be richly rewarded, especially at the conclusion that has one of the finest reveals I’ve seen in theatre for a long time.
Almeida Theatre, London to November 29, 2014
1. Laura Elsworthy, David Cromer and David Walmsley by Marc Brenner in Our Town
2. Laura Elsworthy, David Walmsley and Jessica Lester by Marc Brenner in Our Town
3. David Cromer by Marc Brenner in Our Town