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Review of Our Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Arthur Hughes as George and Francesca Henry as Emily - Credit Johan Persson
Arthur Hughes as George and Francesca Henry as Emily – Credit Johan Persson

I usually have a bit of time to mull over what I thought about a production before having to say anything about it to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. But in the taxi back from Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to Waterloo Station, my cab driver, who follows football about as much as I do (not much at all, which left us both utterly bemused by the football fans crammed into Trafalgar Square partying away – I later found out there were some ‘play off’ matches at Wembley Stadium over the weekend) wanted to know how I found the show. I replied by saying Our Town was rather like watching an episode of The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie – set in America, everything is civilised and very, very pleasant. But it’s a world that simply doesn’t exist anymore and is thus best treated as a period play.

A three-act play (though not long enough to justify two intervals, fortunately, or unfortunately), it’s easy to see why it won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Thanks to the efforts of the Stage Manager (Laura Rogers), seemingly in charge of proceedings, the way of life of the residents of a fictional town, Grover’s Corners, in New Hampshire, is described in some detail. The show takes a bizarre turn in the third act, not entirely like the last section in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, where Emily Gibbs (nee Webb) (Francesca Henry), like Billy Bigelow, has passed into the afterlife but seizes the opportunity of returning to Earth for one day. The whole scene is frankly ludicrous.

Before that, though, there is plenty of action. With so much description, the set is sparse, and more is mimed than one would ordinarily expect in a venue of this calibre. The production has the perfect comeback to that point: the script begins with the stage direction, “No curtain. No scenery.” There is, eventually “some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery”, and plenty of sound effects, though – even if, this production being outdoors, actual birdsong occasionally accompanied the dialogue. But otherwise, a given scene is set where the Stage Manager has determined it is set, and as various details announced as the show progresses, it’s not exactly difficult to follow.

Then again, it could be argued that the audience’s imaginations are not utilised as much as they could be in a show that has so much exposition one occasionally gets the feeling one might as well be watching a radio play. It has some relevance, for two reasons. The first is its portrayal of ‘ordinary’ people – not business tycoons and/or members of the upper classes, but families of people who face life’s struggles head-on, grafting and getting on with things, one day at a time. The second is its portrayal of a community where people enjoy friendly (as opposed to merely cordial) relations with one another, a sort of invitation, if not a challenge, to audiences for friendlier communications – or even communications at all.

Quite how this can be achieved isn’t something explored in great depth, and one wonders if it is possible, or even desirable. Contemporary communities may be messier places that Grover’s Corners, but there are far greater opportunities for people, who don’t necessarily have to marry and have children. Consider the women in Our Town: they don’t exactly commute into the city to work, pursuing a meaningful career path. Anyway, as far as the production is concerned, there are some good performances, particularly from Arthur Hughes’ George Gibbs, who the audience sees grow up over the play’s timeframe – about twelve years or so. Overall, it’s not the most gripping play to grace the Open Air Theatre stage, but it’s an agreeable and poignant evening nonetheless.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

As the Stage Manager introduces another ordinary day in Grover’s Corners, the townsfolk go about their daily business: newspapers are delivered; people go to work; gardens are tended to. And a boy and girl fall in love.

But, as life’s events unfold and a community comes together, one question remains: “do any human beings ever realise life as they live it? Every, every minute?

Full cast includes: Phil Adèle, Pandora Colin, Karl Collins, Tom Edden, Jim Findley, Francesca Henry, Peter Hobday, Arthur Hughes, Terique Jarrett, Thusitha Jayasundera, Louis Martin, Miriam Nyarko, Tumo Reetsang, David Ridley, Garry Robson, Laura Rogers, Tyrell Russell-Martin, Nicola Sloane and Cleo Sylvestre.

Director Ellen McDougall
Designer Rosie Elnile
Movement Director Sasha Milavic Davies
Composer Orlando Gough
Lighting Designer Lizzie Powell
Sound Designer Tom Gibbons
Season Associate Director (Voice & Text) Barbara Houseman
Casting Director Jacob Sparrow
Musical Director David Ridley

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Booking to 8th June 2019


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