"“All Human Life is There”"
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 16/02/17

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is an iconic stage-show that theatregoers around the world have taken to their hearts. This exuberant production by students of Bristol’s internationally renowned ‘Old Vic’ Theatre School, demonstrates all the reasons the show is so beloved. It might be said to have pioneered the idea of TV soap operas, with its ‘slice-of-life’ style, but thankfully, less ‘angst’ yet emotionally rich. But to return to ‘Our Town’ …

New-comers to the Circomedia venue will discover a large square space. No formal nave remains between the six massive pillars. Only the Chancel alcove at the far end, where the alter once stood beneath the stained glass window, reminds one the building was a place of worship in earlier times. A motley array of chairs are placed randomly about the outer edges of the space, nearby, are rails on which costumes are hung ready for quick changes of costumes. Thus the whole area is given over entirely to Theatre. Audience, actors, musicians, wardrobe-staff, the stage-manager with her walkie-talkie, all jolly-along in one amorphous group, beneath the impressive metal-frame lighting-rig, set high under the lofty ceiling. From this, many lamps beam down on specific parts of the scene below.

All is ready to begin a ‘Promenade Performance’ allowing patrons to move about, or sit when they wish or stand to glimpse between or over other theatregoers, the sequence of episodes and hear the story of ‘small-town life’ in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where the locals still speak with “absence of accent,” almost English, only subtly veering westward toward a North American lilt.

As usual, among the cast are several promising, emerging actors, and not only those who stand out because they have leading roles. Actors playing quieter characters may be less noticeable, but that proves how well they can act ‘quiet characters.’ Spotting these talents is an added pleasure, on top of watching the play. Who shall you see more of in future, of whom you’ll boast, “We predicted s/he would rise to success”… ?

The audience is welcomed casually and warmly by members of the cast who move easily among the gathering, guiding us gently to appropriate parts of the acting area, to clear spaces so the players can perform cheek-by-jowl in the midst of their patrons. This challenges the actors’ abilities in concentration, and none was ‘fazed’ out of character. But intermingling with working actors is also an experience for the audience, throwing up a fresh dimension to their appreciation of the stories.

Had Thornton Wilder been given use of such a venue as Bristol’s inspiring former Parish Church of St Paul, now transformed into the unique performance space in which Circomedia present their remarkable shows, Wilder might have written an even wilder play. His was an unprecedented concept, a stage-play presented as a moving collage revealing key moments in everyone’s life, as lived in a typical New England town around the turn of the 20th Century, and through its first decade. Oddly enough, Wilder didn't write 'Our Town' until the 1930s.

Strangely, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milkwood,’ evolved during the same decade as Wilder was putting his ideas together, but more than Dylan's merely quirky characters, the American consciously enlightens his audiences to fuller understanding and awareness of what their lives contained and what spiritual potential they possessed, ‘though not in the religious sense.

Wilder also wanted to shake conventional drama out of complacency and into greater relevance and true value to people’s lives. Wilder was a gentle moderniser of play-writing and has been as profound an influence as Stanislavsky, Brecht & others, but in a quieter way, that many have not noted. Yet, ‘Our Town’ is universally loved.

The Old Vic Theatre School currently provides perhaps, more drama in Bristol, than any of the professional theatre companies in the city; a city which is now in grave danger of losing entirely, its local authority Arts Funding, despite the fact that investment in the Arts earns the UK’s 2nd highest return-on-investment – Yes, Arts are profitable. The common misconception is that Arts are a luxury, but in fact, they generate huge income for the UK from shows being transferred abroad, tourist attendances here in Britain, sales of franchises and TV series around the world, etc, etc.

Theatregoers, if you value culture or the money it generates, for Art’s sake, protest against Local Council cuts in Funding by writing to your district councillors & MPs. Thanks

Meanwhile, remember ‘Our Town’ is at Circomedia, BS2 8SJ only until Saturday, 18th February.

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