Review: Our Town @ Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

There are eight tables in the middle of the stage. Each table has six people on. Some are brave members of the audience. Actors are interspersed throughout.

The narrator then strides on to stage. A tall, broad American, he declares the time and place of the play’s story: May 7, 1901, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, USA.

He states the play was originally written in 1937 and proclaims the Manchester Royal Exchange Company has made it their own. He bombards the audience with details of the town: its layout, who lived where, what the citizens did for a living and what their forefathers did before them.

He then announces the title of the first act: ‘Daily Life’.

Already, Our Town is not your usual performance.

The boundaries between time and place, narrator and character, audience and actor are forcibly blurred throughout the first two acts with the action of the play happening around the audience members sat at the tables.

With clapping and hand gestures reminiscent of drama workshops, the narrator directly addresses stage managers, characters and audience members alike. As a result, the first two sections of the performance feel a little awkward and clunky at times – but in hindsight it works.

Moments of uncomfortable silence or nervous laughter from the audience highlight MREC’s successful attempt to not only break through the fourth wall, but to entirely demolish it.

Themes of legacy, identity, time and place are threaded into the play’s fabric. From descriptions of the bed rock the town lies on, to the legacy a father leaves his son (emotionally and financially), one can’t shake the feeling that all of life is here and the audience are living it alongside the characters.

Moments of organised chaos are pinpricked with poignant messages about the human condition before the interval. In a moment of clarity the narrator declares: “Whenever you come close to the human race, there are layers and layers of nonsense” – so to with the performance. It is very cleverly done.

So, Thornton Wilder’s meta-theatrical has been brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century. But is it relevant?

Are the traditional life milestones Wilder picked out in 1937 relatable for a 21st century audience? Perhaps not always. But some things are universal.

The third and final act give some return to the usual theatre experience. The previously blaring lights are dimmed to near darkness and the audience no longer feels self-conscious.

The chaos of the previous scenes is replaced with a serene calm and with it comes raw emotion.

MREC’s adaptation of the original is in no uncertain terms a powerful one.

It made me uncomfortable. I think that’s a good thing.

*Our Town is playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday, October 14. You can buy tickets HERE.

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