Arts

Two Reviews for Our Town @ The New Theatre

Review One by Clara Baldock

A solitary figure on stage steps into the light and so the play begins. The town of Grover’s Corners, which serves as a microcosm for the rest of world, is mapped out through the creative use of lighting and soon the audience is immersed in the bustling life of ‘Our Town’. The use of space is cleverly manipulated to function as a variety of different settings, and imaginative ways of dividing the stage in order for two scenes to occur at once are apparent from the start. The stage manager (Rose Eccleshare) plays a significant role in taking the audience on a journey into the lives of some of the characters, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. She impressively holds the whole play together however, issues of accents create confusion as the stage manager adopts an American accent whilst the rest of the cast speak with British accents. It would have been more effective if one accent was maintained throughout, regardless of whether it was American or British.

A noticeable feature that characterized the play was its simplistic set and the intentional lack of props. Wilder himself stated that: ‘Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind-not in things, not in scenery’. The minimal set created emphasis on miming which was effectively and dexterously carried out by the actors on stage. ‘Our Town’ created an intriguing dichotomy; it realistically depicted the daily routine of the characters yet contrasted this with a sparse stage which made no attempt to aid the portrayal of ordinary life. Therefore, much is left up to the power of imagination which was oddly pleasing to the eye as audience members watched with fascination at the carefully choreographed movement onstage. Although such ideas displayed a sense of adventurousness on the part of the director, they were undermined at times and inconsistencies began to develop. In particular, the third act introduced an entirely different set that consisted of an elaborate kitchen which although was impressively constructed, appeared out of place and inappropriate in comparison to the rest of the play. Presumably a symbolic meaning was intended however this was not made apparent to the audience.

A unique aspect of the play was the choir. The sound of warm harmonies filling the room was an atmospheric and rather moving addition that was a pleasure to hear after having had many scenes without music. They also sung in the interval which received a loud applause and suggested that the story the audience see unfolding on the stage, is only representative of real life and is not attempt to make one believe what they see on stage is real. The choir, led by a caricature conductor, could have been exploited more, especially at moments in which visually there was little to look at.

Glimpses into the lives of the Webb and Gibbs families was done so in a sensitive and thoughtful manner however, the play often dwelled too long on such scenes and so audience attention wavered. The play stresses the inevitable advancement of time and yet ironically, the play itself needed more momentum and pace. Too much time was dedicated to descriptions of the town and to stylistic endeavours that began to overwhelm the story. Although stylistically it was interesting and varied, too much emphasis was placed on trying to engage the audience as opposed to drawing out the characters themselves.

‘Our Town’ is filled with idiosyncratic characters that inject humour into the play and the theme of companionship is delicately touched upon through a good performance by Lauren Grant and Harry MacDonald. With some challenges still to overcome in the piece, it was enjoyable to watch with subtle nuances throughout that created the strong moral message of Carpe diem (seize the day), leaving the audience with an enriched insight into the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and dreams flicker throughout the passage of time.

Review Two by Mav Reynolds

‘Interesting’, without any negative connotations, is the best way to sum up the second play of this season. Stephen Irvine has achieved a mammoth task in co-ordinating twenty five actors in such a short space of time, and not only this, he has created a play unlike any other that I have seen at the New Theatre. Our town is a play that confronts life in its various stages, leading the audience through personal tragedy and triumph, and ultimately expanding its scope to the communal or shared human experience.

The play follows the lives of two adjacent households in Grover’s Corners, a small town in rural New England. It depicts the everyday, the mundane, the ordinary, and goes to great lengths in the opening of the first act to depict the simple normality and seemingly uninterruptable rhythm of the lives that the townsfolk lead.

As the play opens, we are introduced to the town and its inhabitants by the outstanding Stage Manager (Rose Eccleshare), whose opening monologue clearly defines and reminds the audience of the artifice inherent in the stage world. Throughout the first and second acts she will acquaint us with our principal, and lesser characters, and invite them to impart their opinions of the town. The style of the piece is methodical each character holds a particular role and function as well as a potted history. The overall theme is that of continuity of life, being lived as it ever has been, of the struggles between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and of the blossoming love between the young people of the town. This ‘rhythm’ can be clearly seen in the parallel families and most potently in the beautifully mirrored mime work of Frances Rylands and Claire Horn, who seem to represent the universal mother.

Of particular note are the young couple (Lauren Grant) and (Harry MacDonald) whose awkward, unsure courtship forms the constant thread around which loiter scenes of more situational exposition that draw the audience into the wider play world. Artistically these scenes are necessary to carry the play’s message, and there are some beautifully comic lines. They do however make for a slow first half, something that was not always aided by some slight first night nerves when it came to cues. This I’m sure will pick up throughout the week.

The stylization of this piece is of particular interest. Set is moved freely during Eccleshare’s monologues by stage hands wearing t-shirts saying ‘I’m Not Here’ and much of the set and props are suggested through the mime work, most of which is very good. My only criticism being that it became somewhat repetitive, which may well have been the point (perhaps showing the repetitive nature of life and that lack of attention that people pay to inconsequential objects). I felt that mime could have been used to greater effect with a little more economy, if Irvine had trusted his audience to buy into it.

The lighting was mind bogglingly complex. Irvine and Feavers used light to divide the sparse set, and to create the necessary circles of attention when there are multiple items on stage. The lighting was beautifully, especially in the second act, at which point this play came into its own.

The first act deals with childhood and marriage whilst the second deals with death. It is in this far shorter more concise piece of drama that all of the slightly discordant, slightly meandering elements of our town come together. It is haunting and ethereal, the choir is used to great effect and the range of sorrow and humour found by the static deceased is truly moving. In the final ten minutes we reach the crux of this plays argument – That we (Humans) do not appreciate life when living, and only in reflection do we begin see clearly the beauty around us. The visual representation of this is the revealing for the first time of a tangible set in which the opening lines are echoed. Grant reaches an emotional climax which is harrowing.

Whether this payoff is worth the slower more difficult first half you will have to decide for yourselves. Whether Irvine’s artistic decisions such as having the play pronounced in English accents (apart from Eccleshare), his unorthodox creation of tableaus such as the wedding scene, or his sparse use of props, work? – Again I cannot decide. At moments such decisions felt inspired, at others, a little forced. Occasionally it felt like these decisions detracted from what should have been the focal point of the scene, at others they brought it into sharp relief.

After an entire day I am still undecided regarding this play. It had so much that was good and yet so much that felt a little confusing, slightly piecemeal, even clumsy. This is all part of the fascination of Our Town. It is a play that raises question after question and demands that the audience puzzle it’s way through. I left with very little to say for myself for this very reason. It is a play that will surely divide opinion, but such is the risk that any production takes in being so clearly crafted. When the artist shows you their brush strokes the first question you should ask it ‘why?’ It is a risk that the New Theatre should be very proud of.

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7 Comments on this post.
  • Stuart
    28 February 2010 at 19:18
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    I believe that the direction of this play was fantastic, one of the best I have seen at New Theatre over the last year. The actors managed to act freely without seeming on script which was so refreshing for a student production.

    As somebody who knows this play very well, I was upset that a few of my favourite scenes (ones which showed further more into the daily lives of the families) were cut. If I were to have to cut out any scene, it would have to be: the ones with the paper boy (girl), milkman (maid), and policeman together (although having good on-stage chemistry slowed the story down heavily), or the first scene of Act 2 with the reincarnation of Wally Webb and the Gravedigger (the actor who played the Gravedigger was probably the only weak link in the cast). Looking further into the strong supporting cast that are failed to be mentioned in the reviews above, I thought that: the Professor was portrayed perfectly, the milkmaid has so much star potential, the actress of Rebecca Gibbs portrayal was so brattish it was wonderful, and the Policeman managed to brighten up the stage like theatrical prozac (as he so memorably did in Ghetto last semester). It must be added that Rose Eccleshare was born to be the Stage Manager, why have I never seen her in New Theatre before? Fantastic.

    Another aspect of the play that I loved was the music (especially during the interval). The choir obviously rehearsed heavily and it paid off. The guy playing the choirmaster was genius, congratulations for both a fantastic performance through acting as well as the arrangements for the choir. I would have loved to have seen Mrs. Soames featured more in the choir such as the gravedigger and policeman were as well as being a speaking cast member. The script says that she is the heart and soul of the choir, but she never came back into it after their first performance. This really undermined her character’s role and it was a shame.

    In conclusion (this might cause offence to the writers but I want to get my opinion across, you don’t have to publish it), I think that this was better than the immensely hyped Winterling. It held energy and it was a great show. Not to create an anti-Impact rant, but I think that you have been exceptionally harsh about Our Town, complaining about unimportant aspects of the play. Winterling was overacted (with most characters lacking any emotion or stage presence) and so obviously flat but you treat it like it’s BAFTA winning. Our Town is certainly the over way around, but due to your review published on Friday, the audience attendance of Our Town on Friday (when I attended) was nearly empty which was such a horrible shame. I think that you should always: 1) Print the same amount of reviews for each play; 2) fully spell check each review before printing (the one by Miss. Burdock has a few embarrassingly obvious mistakes); 3) look into more parts of the play rather than your obvious checklist of points/template you have; and 4) be less impartial, i.e. don’t favour plays done by your “mates”. Finally I recommend that you do publish this last paragraph in true democratic journalistic form and publish a response online below as we all want to hear what you think about this.

  • Stuart
    28 February 2010 at 19:25
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    One other comment, Miss Baldock: stop using a thesaurus! It’s really annoying.

  • Adam Wood
    1 March 2010 at 20:26
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    I’m taking a bit of a risk here using my own name as opposed to pseudonym but I felt it was time for a more honest approach. As you’ll see below, I’m not a natural reviewer so apologies.

    Well done to some excellent performances in Our Town. I thought Rose Eccleshare was brilliant throughout and Lauren Grant and Harry MacDonald even managed to draw a tear from a certain German (who shall remain nameless). Sorry I can’t list everyone’s names from the cast here but well done to all. Overall I have to agree with the reviews’ conclusions (particularly Mavs). On paper it was a risk, by all means, but it definitely paid off.

    Credit to Irvine on a directional debut. Without sounding too cliche, he dealt with a massive ensemble cast admirably and I can’t recall any point at which the blocking became convoluted. Where I think the direction perhaps lacked was in (contrary to Stuart’s opinion) character work. I know a large amount of time was spent around the performance in improvisation and warm-up games etc but I reckon, had more time been spent working on character, it would have bettered the production as a whole. Perhaps that’s something for Stephen’s next show though (and I hope, based on last week, he’ll get another slot in coming seasons).

    As regards to the reviews, I disagree with Stuart. I think these reviews have been fair enough and Friday’s audience wouldn’t have suffered at their hands. Rather, I think it came down to people preparing for elections ocean (just as Vagina Monologues deservedly took audience away the week before). Impact took a lot of flak last week and I don’t think all of it was deserved. I did take personal issue with a certain lack of impartiality, hypocrisy and personal interest in one review last week (particularly as a drew undue criticism on a great performer and friend) but I don’t think one should go as far as to strike off Impact reviews altogether. Impact does a great service to New Theatre and one I hope it will continue to do. I haven’t always agreed with Mav’s reviews but I’d rather their be some form of critique on a performance than none at all. Like Stuart, I believe Impact has to have an impartial point of view in order to give a respectable review.

    As to the quite haughty conclusion to Stuart’s comments; Impact usually write and send out their reviews within a day (a couple at most). They can surely be forgiven for a couple of grammar errors. I’ve no doubt that I’m guilty of many in this comment and you, Stuart, mean ‘more impartial’ rather than ‘less impartial’. Still I’d rather focus on your argument than this slight blunder just as I’d rather focus on the points of the review itself rather than being a grammar nazi concerning a review.

    Just briefly Stuart, don’t take this as a challenge of any sort, just idle curiousness (honest). You say the the Winterling lot over-acted then you go on to say they lacked emotion. Was wondering if you could clarify with some examples maybe. Maybe I can work on it in my performance (sorry people, much as I tried I couldn’t help asking).

    However, this is a review for Our Town and we shouldn’t detract from that. With such a huge cast, a decidedly long play (cuts included) and so little time it was always going to be difficult to put on Our Town. Nonetheless, it was extremely mature material dealt with admirably and, without wanting to sound patronising, the cast, crew and particularly Stephen should be extremely proud to have put on a play of such grand scale in such a short amount of time.

  • Sophia
    2 March 2010 at 00:20
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    Stuart, if you would like to review for Impact please feel free to e-mail [email protected], i’m sure they will be more than happy to publish your work online.

  • Adam Wood
    2 March 2010 at 03:22
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    I said their instead of there at one point. Much as I reproach Stuart, that I probably should have looked over. Blunder.

  • Bessie
    6 March 2010 at 03:04
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    I was in our town (let’s stay anon, why not) and I thought it was great. Loved being in it, reviews highly just, comments – especially from Stu – a bit too much in depth, shouldn’t you be working? Adam – you were AMAZING in the winterling and you know you were, don’t let some loser put you down! But I do agree with the thesaurus comment, as well as us in the our town cast (we discussed this back stage one night), keep it more simple, even if you don’t use a thesaurus when writing, we don’t want to use one when reading your review!! I am looking forward to seeing Dinner (hmmm the cast of Our Town saw it together on Thursday, who wasn’t there… maybe giving my identity away, “lollllz”!!), looking forward to see how Impact writes reviews, well done for doing them anyway, you don’t have to. All the reviews do is to complement the cast and directors’ egos- you were all fabulous darlings!!!!!

  • Bessie
    6 March 2010 at 03:06
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    And Woody : WHAT a blunder, you should feel bad about that!

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