Our Town by The Castle Players
You have to Have Life to Love Life.
Our Town is a three-act play created by American playwright Thornton Wilder in 1938. Described by Edward Albee as "the greatest American play ever written", it presents the fictional American town of Grover's Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens.
The main character is stage manager of the theatre, (Gordon Duffy-McGhie) who directly addresses the audience, brings in guest lecturers, fields questions from the audience, and fills in playing some of the roles. The play is performed without a set on a mostly bare stage with the actors brilliantly miming actions without the use of props while the lighting by Vaughan Freeman and Alastair Fells' guitar is wonderfully supplemented by the Castle Players choir - No Added Sugar, led by George Ford.
For Act 1, the Stage Manager introduces the audience to the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and the people living there as a morning begins in the year 1901. Jesse Crowel (Mary Handley) delivers the paper to Doc Gibbs (Mike Steinbock), Howie Newsome (Josh Normanton) delivers the milk, and the Webb and Gibbs households send their children - Emily and Wally Webb (Florence Backes & Edward Handley) George and Rebecca Gibbs (Sam Phillipson & Amber Coco Littlefair) off to school on this beautifully simple morning.
Professor Willard (Chris Foote-Wood) speaks to the audience about the history of the town while newspaper editor Mr Webb (Angus Wheeler) explains about the town's socioeconomic status, political and religious demographics, and the accessibility and proliferation, or lack thereof, of culture and art in Grover's Corners. The Stage Manager leads us through a series of pivotal moments throughout the afternoon and evening, revealing the characters' relationships and challenges.
A delightful scene has Mrs Gibbs (Charlotte Perkins) and Mrs Webb (Janie Caldbeck) sat in the garden stringing beans; simplistic in design but the interaction between the two, the clever way they top & tail the beans and the almost mundane, yet fascinatingly interesting conversation will have everyone harking back to a simple time.
So far, it feels like a wonderful step back into the days where everybody knows everybody else, they all live comfortably with each other, nobody locks their doors at night. A bit like watching an episode of the Waltons or an American version of Under Milk Wood.
Act 2 steps forward three years and George and Emily prepare to wed. The day is filled with stress. Howie Newsome is delivering milk in the pouring rain while George pays an awkward visit to his soon-to-be in-laws, full of doubt and uncertainty. Here, the Stage Manager interrupts the scene and takes the audience back a year, to the end of Emily and George's junior year. Emily confronts George about his pride, and over an ice cream soda, they discuss the future and confess their love for each other. The scene in the ice cream parlour is beautifully acted between the two young stars; packed full of teenage angst, neither daring to dream that the other has similar feelings for each other. The scene ends with the wedding and a fleeting hope that they all “happily ever after”.
Act 3 jumps ahead again and nine years have passed. The Stage Manager, in a lengthy monologue, discusses eternity, focusing attention on the cemetery outside of town and the people who have died since the wedding. The scene sits in the town cemetery and is chilling yet quite wondrous as the characters there ponder the timelessness of the universe. Mrs. Gibbs (pneumonia, while traveling), Wally Webb (burst appendix, while camping), Mrs. Soames, and the towns alcoholic pastor Simon Stimson (Ian Kirkbride) are all sat at their graves. Town undertaker Joe Stoddard (Stephen Brenkley) welcomes a young lady named Samantha Craig (Sue Byrne) who has returned to Grover's Corners for her cousin's funeral.
As the mourners arrive we realise that that cousin is Emily, who died giving birth to her and George's second child. Once the funeral ends, Emily emerges to join the dead, a concept that she at first struggles with. To help, she is given the chance to go back and re-visit her family on her 12th birthday where she finally understands that life is made up of so many small and insignificant details that we hardly notice as times flies by.
There are many parallels to "It's a Wonderful Life," especially as Emily looks back on her past life, although this story has a much darker outlook than Van Doren Stern's classic Christmas tale.
This is a brilliant evening of story telling, beautifully and remarkably performed by a very talented cast. A special mention must go to Florence Backes as Emily Webb - she gave a moving & emotional performance that ANYONE in professional theatre would have been proud to have delivered – her progression from innocent naïve teenager to ‘sad dead mother’ was quite heart-breaking.
Our Town is on at The Witham, Barnard Castle on 17thy & 18th November https://thewitham.org.uk/event/the-castle-players-our-town/
One of the leading non-professional theatre groups in the North East, The Castle Players have been providing theatrical entertainment since 1986. With such a strong and diverse set of performers, musicians and production team they never fail to present fabulous theatre.
Photos by Helen Brown Photography
This performance was in the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond - our 1st visit to this charming theatre. The Georgian Theatre Royal is Britain's most complete Georgian playhouse. Built by the actor-manager Samuel Butler in 1788 it is a typical eighteenth-century country playhouse and keeps alive an important period of English theatre architecture: a sunken pit, boxes on three sides and a small gallery above ensure intimacy between the performers and the audience. Also boasting Britain's oldest set of scenery, known as 'The Woodland Scene' which was probably painted between 1818 and 1836, there are experience tours of the theatre available (see georgiantheatreroyal.co.uk for full details).