A STUNNING SIMPLICITY, A HUMAN HEART
Only the dead see life clearly. In the last strange simple minutes of this undramatic drama, half of Thornton Wilder’s citizens become their own speaking tombstones, drifting towards oblivion or eternity but roused for a moment by a new arrival’s travails . “Wasn’t Life awful?” says a voice. – “And wonderful”. chimes another. I think a third dim voice assents: or it might be one of us, sitting round and among the action in the never-dimmed auditorium, drawn in to the humdrum wonderfulness of daily doings, marriage, work, failure, success and suicide, birthdays, bereavements. Life.
The 1938 play won a Pulitzer and broke convention: a bare floor, a couple of tables, quotidian jobs mimed, New Hampshire small-town life, hills, homes, horsepower and starlight at the start of he 20c expressed only in description by a wry, wandering stage manager; but enacted by a cast who in fragmented scenes under his direction relive routine, a wedding and a loss. David Cromer’s production – in which he is our affable onstage narrator and guide – ran in New York, but here the universality of it is underlined by the British cast with British accents. Some have cavilled at this, because of Wilders’ US idioms and references – the ‘I declare’, the ‘ma’am’s, baseball and the rest. But after a few minutes I found any awkwardness fading into complete acceptance of character and situation.
That is part of the play’s low-key brilliance, because in its slight two-hour two -interval span there are no situations which a more traditional dramatist would be bothered with. Just small – yet immense – quotidian happenings: family breakfasts, kids growing up, middle aged weary parents, awkward courtship, stifled yearnings to get out of the hometown mixed with love of it. For all its dated, anchored detail – in attitudes and mores from a century ago – it evokes Everytown, every street .
Which feels like a magic trick, or perhaps just one of those moments of piercing universal vision, when you startle yourself by seeing in a flash humanity poised in eternity, and the littleness and immensity of life. It feels unlikely that something so unshowy can achieve that: even with one brief scenic coup de theatre five minutes from the end. But it is remarkable; and so are the core performances. Cromer himself is assured, anchored, dryly funny and unselfconsciously sincere. He draws the same quality from his cast. especially Anna Francolini as Mrs Gibbs and Kate DIckie as Mrs Webb, and David Walmsley and Laura Elsworthy as the young wedded pair. Elsworthy especially holds the final scene with mesmeric natural intensity.
box office 0207 359 4404 to To 29 november
Supported by Aspen , Barrow Street Theatre and Jean Doumanian