"Taking refuge in Our Town"
by Andy MOSELEY for remotegoat on 04/10/12

An autumn night in Peckham and early 20th century America may not seem like obvious bedfellows, but thanks to The Last Refuge and Savio(u)r Theatre Company, the two come together in a revival of Thornton Wilder's 1938 play.

Our Town has been performed somewhere in the US every night since its original production. It's easy to see why. The play follows the lives and deaths of the citizens of Grover's Corners, a fictional town, from 1901 to 1913. Nothing and everything happens. Ordinary lives are lived, and characters aspirations are limited to running a farm, getting married and leading a good life, but it's the recognition of the everyday, and a melancholy sadness, that are its greatest strengths.

A Stage Manager acts as guide and narrator, taking us through events in the lives of the town's overwhelmingly Republican and Protestant inhabitants. In the absence of any scenery or set, other than tables, chairs and step ladders, he also describes the setting. Lest anyone thinks this is due to a lack of resources, this is how Wilder intended the play to be performed, a reaction to evasive theatre and elaborate sets.

The main story follows Emily Webb and George Gibbs from childhood and early courtship, through marriage, and on to Emily's premature death, aged 28. In the first two acts, events are seen through the eyes of the omniscient Stage Manager, creating a distance from the characters as he delves beneath the surface of the town and into the lives lived there.

The real punch is delivered in Act 3 as Emily joins others who have died, and the emphasis shifts to the people themselves. Emily reflects on how short her life was and tries to return to earth, but, going back as an observer, notices so much she never saw before. This was powerful and moving, with an excellent, measured, performance from Zoe Swenson-Graham, made all the more poignant by the Stage Manager shifting the focus back to a town where her passing caused no disruption to day to day life.

Overall this was a strong production, true to the spirit of the play and making good use of the potential offered by the venue. However, the decision not to use accents resulted in a mixture of nationalities, regions and social classes, and was distracting, particularly when the Stage Manager became a bartender from the North of England. With two Americans in the cast, the absence of other American accents became more noticeable, and frustrating, than it would otherwise have been. It was also unfortunate that, with the play performed in the round, Tamarin McGinley, as Mrs Webb, spent most of Act 1 performing mechanical routines directly in front of some of the front row, thereby blocking the actors speaking.

These points aside it's still worth heading over to a part of London not normally associated with theatre for a chance to see a play seldom performed in the UK in spite of its daily presence on American stages.

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