Theatre review: Our Town, King's Head Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

Thornton Wilder won the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes for Our Town in 1938 and the play has been performed somewhere in the United States every night since.

An attempt “to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life”, the piece seeks to present a snapshot of Grovers Corner, a small town New Hampshire town at the turn of the twentieth century, in a way that does humorous honour to its unapologetic ordinariness and, at the same time, views the place and its people from the perspective of eternity. To do so, Wilder stipulated a bare stage and minimal props and he equipped the proceedings with an all-knowing Stage Manager.  

Director Tim Sullivan and Savio(u)r now celebrate the 75th anniversary of the play with this intimate, very touching and honestly-felt traverse-stage revival. It's a production that, in some respects, pushes the logic of Wilder's procedures a step or two further. The inhabitants of Grovers Corner know that their horizons are small – a fact brought out, with rueful comedy, when the doctor's wife plaintively contends that just once in your life, you should see a country “where they don't talk English and don't even want to”. 

But Wilder's belief that theatre can raise the individual instance to the level of the universal is given a bracing twist here as a decidedly international company portrays the New Hampshire townsfolk, in an assortment of natural accents. True, the acting is uneven and a bit rough in places, but the casting policy creates a charm that is non-folksy and enhances our sense of the play's meta-theatrical qualities.   

Our Town has been accused of an empty mimicking of modernist techniques for soothing Pirandello-without-the-rebellion, socially conservative ends. But there's much that's far more akin to Edward Hopper than to Norman Rockwell in Wilder's vision and that's underlined here because the Stage Manager, often played by an avuncular oldster, is finely portrayed by the much younger Simon Dobson whose wryly challenging manner alerts you to what's discomfiting in this figure's  philosophy. And Zoe Swenson-Graham breaks your heart as the deceased Emily who comes back to earth to relive her 12th birthday and suffers such pain as she impotently witnesses how little people on earth value the beauty of existence that she voluntarily returns to the passionless shades in the graveyard. 

Hard to square that bleak progression with the idea that Our Town peddles glib reassurance.   

To 20 July; 0207 478 0160