Review: Our Town (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

Thornton Wilder’s classic American play is revived by Sarah Frankcom at the Royal Exchange in Manchester

It must be a pretty daunting task for any director to find a new way into this timeless classic of American drama. Thornton Wilder was enthusiastically prescriptive in his directions for the staging and playing of his 1938 Pultizer Prize-winning baby: sec was the keyword: dry as a bone. No props, no fourth wall, no fuss. Perfect material then for the thousands of also-ran US high school productions of the past 80 years. And perfect for Manchester in 2017? Almost.

Sarah Frankcom's production opens by doing what the Exchange's space does so beautifully. Fly Davis' bare design not only eschews the fourth wall, it demolishes it and kicks it into touch. Audience and actors sit centre stage at functional tables on plastic chairs in a space that – fittingly – resembles a school gym. They chat and laugh, handbags by feet, house lights up. It's just the ice breaker that the Stage Manager (a wonderfully effortless Youssef Kerkour) in his pivotal role as chorus/narrator is looking for. He even invites us to get to know our neighbours in the stalls. We are everyman, everywoman, every one. This is most definitely Our Town. Big tick.

The play's perfection, however, isn't ever found in stagey gimmicks, but in the text's simplistic, forensic evocation of a daily life that goes unnoticed; how every one of us behaves around the mundanity of waking, eating and sleeping each day on this earth. How life slips by and death creeps up, and how it gets too late way too quickly.

We're in small town America, Grover's Corners to be (fictionally) precise, at the turn of the last century, but of course we're really in 21st century Manchester. Watching the lives and love of teenage sweethearts Emily Webb (Norah Lopez Holden) and George Gibbs (Patrick Elue) unfold, it's you and me we're spying on, and ultimately, in the third act, it's you, not the cold dead Emily, who begs her graveside neighbours to let her relive one day, so she can taste life properly this time. She chooses her 12th birthday, aching for the touch of her mother one final time.

It's easy as it reaches its climax for Our Town to fall into a hyperbolic trap, to tumble down a rabbit hole of whimsy and melodrama, and this production avoids that, but as it does it misses – by a whisker – the emotional G-spot, the place where stomachs turn and hearts are broken. It should be devastating, but it's not. There's simply a tad too much theatre going on, a knowing self-awareness that partially clouds the evisceration of the characters, allowing us, the audience, an emotional get-out clause. I wanted to feel more, to feel raw.

Not the perfect Our Town for Manchester then, not this time round. Pretty darned close though.

Our Town runs at Royal Exchange Manchester until 14 October.