I love the vintage lanes and lively nightlife of Angel but had never before visited the Almeida Theatre. The building itself is really interesting with a highly modernised entrance and cafe which makes first impressions that of a very trendy London hangout. However the theatre itself has more of a vintage charm especially as we seek a side entrance and climb the stairs to the seats on the raised circle. Our cheapest, restricted view seats were through a small staff area but actually really great, almost feeling like our own private box. They looked down on the main action but also directly adjacent to a raised stage area used for the choir scenes and piano accompaniment. Here we got a unique almost birds eye view of not only the actors but the majority of the audience. From the beginning the piece sought to incorporate members of the audience, the seats were positioned so that some rows were within the acting area and installed house lights were on for the majority of the show.
These installed house lights consisted of around 60 different sized domestic style lamps, hung at different lengths. They were not instantly noticeable as installed because they fitted into the space so well but were perhaps more apparent to us on the higher level. They were pretty like a gallery light installation but also practical with the ability to fade with the action. The set in the main consisted of two tables each with 4 chairs, these were cleverly used to signify two houses each with two floors and gave a distinctly recognisable domestic feel. In style they were uninteresting, one something you might find in IKEA and the other a slightly rustic style but again not a statement. Similarly the costumes were modern and unobtrusive, they could quite easily be the actors own though clearly had been chosen to depict these very everyday characters. A few very select props were used including a notebook, school book, milk holder and school bag to signify a character or action but these were extremely minimal.
As a result of the minimalist style the show initially came across like watching a rehearsal. This was further exaggerated when the director entered and began to explain the action and when the actors entered and mimed their actions. This was an interesting play on convention and was a clever way to modernise an historical text bringing to a place we could relate to. We recognised the characters in modern life yet accepted they were acting out something from another time and county. The mimed action was slightly exaggerated at times and almost comical which meant it took a while to accept this style and focus on the story. However as the piece developed I found myself increasingly drawn into this rather strange performance style being presented.
The piece was divided into three acts each dealing with a section of life. The first referred to birth and focused on community and family relationships in particular child parent relationships. This set the scene and introduced our main characters and established a domestic and everyday setting.
The second act focused on love and marriage, including a wedding between two of the children from the main families. This dealt with new relationships forming between families and the anxiety of this big commitment. The wedding itself saw the first major change in scene with the tables removed and more chairs brought in to resemble a church. The scene change was not covered in anyway but obvious and clearly choreographed, performed by stage hands in black.
The third act focused on death and was perhaps the most compelling section of the production. Simple chairs with seated actors represented grave stones very effectively. The actors adopted a still and serene composure and talked together in calm voices. When our main character seeks to go back to the land of the living, the stage for the first time is opened at the back to reveal a hyper realistic kitchen. We now see the real living space of one of our families, in the period clothes and american accents the original play depicted. This scene was so naturalistic there was even a real breakfast being cooked and the distinct and powerful small of bacon drifting through the theatre. It was interesting to see this massive change but was very short lived and seemed an over the top extravagance.
The use of space in the theatre was very clever and interesting throughout this play. The way much of the action took place in the centre of the floor in very close proximity to the audience brought the people and places closer. The audience became part of 'Our Town' with people watching on from all angles, there were odd bits of direct interaction between performer and audience and even some lines given to a couple of people. This added to the stylistic vision of the piece which sought to make the story and characters contemporary and encourage the audience to relate to this town as 'any town'.
Overall I found this piece was well presented. The performances were compelling and the vision well thought through. I enjoyed the use of space and simplistic design which encouraged us an audience to use our own imaginations and relate 'This Town' to our own familiar environments and memories. The realistic section seemed a bit over the top for me and almost like the director or designer was proving they 'could' in case anyone questioned the otherwise minimalism as laziness, budget restrictions or in ability. The use of regional accents has been well noted in reviews of the piece as a key aspect but although I liked the regional accents of the actors as something to relate to, it jarred with the strong american accent of the director. Having a foreign accent as the strong leading force over the otherwise British characters was confusing and took away the regional feel. It would have been interesting to see a broader range of nationalities and offer a more international approach. At first accepting the simplicity, rehearsal style presentation and miming was difficult to get into and I was unsure whether this was for me however as it progressed through the three acts I found myself increasingly drawn in. At the end the play offered me contemplation and interesting conversation which ultimately is the success of a theatrical experience. It challenged and ignited our imagination, provided entertainment and provoked discussion.