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Our Town, By Thornton Wilder
The Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London
Reviewed by Peter Lawler
Buy Tickets to June 8, 2019
The Brits are a forgiving lot. And they want to see the best of us and the best in us, especially in times like these, when the very worst of us is so prominently putting himself in your face, on your television screens, phone screens and Twitter feeds. Which is perhaps why The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's current, deeply atmospheric production of Our Town, bursting with Rockwellian charm and a deeply touchingly dark moment of pathos tucked into the end, feels like such an antidote to our current cultural moment.
Not only does it allow us an escape for a night into this sleepy New England community – designer Rosie Elnile having staged this production sparingly and therefore faithfully and working gently and beautifully with the slowly setting sun and the chirping crickets in Regent's Park – but it is also done so well as to achieve Wilder's aim of reminding us poignantly what life is and what life is not about.
Director Ellen McDougall adeptly achieves this theatrical impact by underscoring the element of community ever-present in the story and the fact that Wilder (as much as is possible over a couple of hours on stage) presents a story that is the life cycle of one community. This is also richly and gloriously enhanced through Musical Director David Ridley's utilization of religious music and harmonizing of the whole cast. In some moments they succeed in creating some starkly moving moments.
Kudos to Tom Edden for his light-hearted and well judged take on Editor Webb, who is subtly compelling as a father and as a concerned and beleaguered citizen. And Arthur Hughes plays George Gibbs's journey from fresh-faced innocent all-American high school hero to a more mature and more painful place in life with riveting conviction. Though one gets the deepest and sincerest sense of the play's down-home Americanness, and family from Thusitha Jayasundera, who plays Mrs Webb sympathetically, with all the loving vocal depth of a native of New Hampshire (of which she is not!).
Francesca Henry is passionate and captures Emily Webb's innocence and inner conflict with understanding and an energy bursting to be free as much as her character is bursting to seize hold of life in all its glory and momentous mundanity. But her accent does sound a little more New York than New England and will jar the ears of Wilder purists (and any other theatregoers that can tell the difference).
But the overall message survives. It sails beautifully to settle on the audience, who live with Wilder's question slightly uneasily in our hearts, but more enriched for the challenge: ‘Does anyone ever realize life while they live it ... every, every minute?