Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ is a metatheatrical American classic that’s rarely performed in Britain and – I can’t stress this enough – a really, really strange play. Revived by Gate Theatre boss Ellen McDougall in what is probably its biggest ever UK production, ‘Our Town’ continues the Open Air Theatre’s tradition of putting the weirdest show in the new season first.
The night is ‘hosted’ by the Stage Manager, in this case played by Laura Rogers, who introduces us to the play and the actors in an English accent. She then switches to an American one and launches into the first part of ‘Our Town’, which constitutes a description of the appearance, history and inhabitants of the fictional New England town of Grover’s Corners, circa 1901.
There is charm and there’s dry wit in Wilder’s writing and McDougall’s staging of part one (of three). At the same time, his almost preposterously detailed sketch of Grover’s Corners is nothing if not wilfully trying, even when delivered with the arch poise of Rogers’s chic, sardonic Stage Manager.
Part two zooms in a bit, focusing on the young love between George (Arthur Hughes) and Emily (Francesca Henry), toning down the obsessive layering of detail and adding a few sarcastic notes to its depiction of a traditional small-town wedding.
You sense that probably something is up with the structure of the play. But you have to wait until part three – after an interval in McDougall’s production – to see ‘Our Town’ take an abrupt existential dive and realise what Wilder was up to the whole time. I won’t spoiler it, but imagine Samuel Beckett taking a crack at a Keyser Söze moment and you’re on the right track. My companion, who didn’t know the play, went into the interval concerned that ‘Our Town’ was a cheesy homage to small-town USA but left the show convinced it was brilliant. And she’s right.
So that’s all good then? Well, yes and no. Compared to the brilliant US production that ran at the Almeida in 2014, McDougall’s ‘Our Town’ feels chillier and more cerebral – neither of which are bad things, but it doesn’t always feel like a great fit with the Open Air Theatre. Saying difficult work shouldn’t be presented here is wrong, but there is no denying that this production takes ages to get going, and offers little initial comfort to the casual viewer. On press night, plenty of people bailed at the interval, which is a shame as I suspect if they’d stayed, most of them would have been happy about it. It’s a remarkable play, that gets there in the end, but this is an arid night of entertainment.