A sense of community is at the heart of Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools production of Our Town. It starts from the moment you enter the space at Circomedia and find actors and audiences mingling together: a hug and a kiss for a parent, a laugh and a joke with a friend, an introduction and engagement of the rules to strangers. The actors are out of character but in a focused pre-playing state, its audience starting bashful but soon relaxing into the world it has found itself in, it is a clever decision by director Paul Clarkson and his cast, a gentle introduction to the meta-theatrical world that Thornton Wilder’s play throws everyone into while embedding its audience into the community at the heart of the fictional town of Grover’s Corner.
While Britain was still by and large producing drawing room comedies, Wilder was drawing his influences from Europe, particularly Pirandello, and here creates a three act homage to township, love and death. In 1938 it must have shook up its Broadway audiences and duly walked away with the Pulitzer prize for its efforts. Almost 80 years later it has lost some of its ability to shock and innovate, but now finds charms in the small-scale stories of love and kinship instead. Its focus mostly falls on two families, the Webbs and the Gibbs,and the relationship that develops between Emily (Rosy McEwen) and George (Rudolphe Mdlongwa). Its a play built on ceremony, the first the everyday procession of a town going about its lives, the second a wedding, the third a burial. Each of these is played low-key, its a town used to measuring its lives in the rising and setting of its sun, not in the incidents that befall them. Yet its linear goes back and forth in time and to the other-world; to the discussion that forms a marriage, to the ghosts of the town overlooking its inhabitants. It’s daring is in bringing these styles together and its challenge for those making it is in blending them together.
Which by and large succeeds. Setting the play in promenade works both for and against it: at its best when you are right up against it, witnessing the stories inches from you, your own personal close up. McEwen especially is great at playing to these pressures, an actor with the subtlety and wherewithal to be truthful in her moments of anguish, a face that a camera would love. Other moments though get lost, the vibrancy of the first act getting jolted as we as an audience get turned left and right, and up and down. Its only later as Clarkson chips away and focuses on the smaller moments, on the stillness of the piece that it finds some of the power.
Vocal coach Gary Owston has done a sterling job of honing the New Hampshire accents and the cast tackle it with verve, a sound that is not wholly American and speaks of the European ancestry that piled in on the boats. Alongside McEwan there is particularly striking work from Niall Wright (soon to appear in Jez Butterworths The Ferryman at the Royal Court and West End) as the warm-hearted newspaper editor of the town, Gina Ruysen as his kindly wife and Herb Cuanalo as a number of the towns residence Meanwhile Ross O’Donnellan tackles the central role of the stage manager who guides us around the town with diffident ease, reminding my guest of Kevin Spacey’s bombastic turn in Clarence Darrow.
The whole is played with great delicacy and its setting at the former church Circomedia allows the wedding act in particular to look spectacular. Yet it never fully sparks into life the way that great productions do, I left feeling charmed but not particularly moved,