RORY Mulvihill’s avuncular Stage Manager – a narrator, ringmaster, master of ceremonies and Cassandra rolled into one – talks of the stars “doing their old, old crisscross journeys” since four billion years ago.
You could call Thornton Wilder’s Our Town a time play, not in the manner of Bradford playwright J B Priestley’s Time Plays of the 1930s and 1940s, but because of the importance of time and using it well.
As director Bryan Bounds said afterwards: “The third act is the glass of water in the face to say, ‘Wake up, this is all going to be gone before you realise it’.”
Ironically, neither Mulvihill’s measured, mellifluous Stage Manager nor Wilder’s play, with its two intervals rather than the customary one, is in a particular hurry. The watch is ticking well past 10pm as we leave, more than two and a half hours after our arrival, but rest assured, time spent in the company of Wilder and “Yorkshire’s American theatre company” is time spent well indeed, particularly after that remarkable, rug-pulling third act.
Our Town has been called “America’s greatest play”, and while your reviewer does not have the time to debate that contention here, the likes of David Mamet and Edward Albee, no less, speak of this 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner that highly.
Advance publicity had suggested Amerrycan Theatre’s modern-dressed production was a very belated York premiere for Our Town, but it has since come to light that Rowntree Players presented it in the late 1950s, the actor who played young lead George Gibbs now in his 80s.
Nevertheless, that remains a long, long hiatus since its only York production, an act of neglect frankly. Not that you would feel that way after the gentle loosener of the first act, where Mulvihill leads a guided tour of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, population, 2,642.
Everyone knows everyone and their business in this little American town with its quietly competitive churches, railway, blanket factory and all-in-one town hall, post office and jail .
Wilder is presenting a microcosm of American life, much like Dylan Thomas’s portrait of the mythical Welsh seaside village of LLareggub in his 1954 radio drama Under Milk Wood, but Thomas’s play spanned only 24 hours, whereas Wilder’s three acts span 12 years from 1906 to 1918, rather than the original 1901 to 1913, in Bounds’s account with intervals of three years from Daily Life (May 7 1906) to Act Two’s Love and Marriage (July 7 1909) and nine more to Act Three’s Death and Eternity (Autumn 1918, originally Summer 1913).
A cast of 14 populates Our Town, some from York, others from Leeds and Harrogate, one born in Tasmania, Bounds originally from Temple, Texas, and his computer engineer friend, Thomas Miller, from southern Illinois, in his first foray into acting since university days. Just as we grow to know Wilder’s characters, an interval read of the programme profiles reveals plenty too, each accompanied by a black-and-white photograph from childhood days.
Our Town is deemed a radical play, not only in breaking down theatre’s fourth wall for Mulvihill to ask various (primed) audience members questions about Grover’s Corners, and in its lack of props and rudimentary scenery, but also in its bravura use of dead people – yes, you can see dead people a la The Sixth Sense – who rise from their graves to take seats to conduct Act Three from beyond.
Here, these dead souls of the cemetery discuss life’s transience, as Craig Kirby’s suicidal drunkard, the now late choirmaster Simon Stimson, scalds the living for their ignorance and bliss in Wilder’s bleaker, blacker version of Jaques’ monologue in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Bleaker still, they castigate the grieving George (spoiler alert) for wasting his time in visiting the graveyard.
Everything is milk and roses on the surface in Act One, even in the Sentinel newspaper run by the upright Mr Charles Webb (Andrew Isherwood), but gradually more than small-town gossip prevails. The women are not happy to be subservient; young Wally Webb (Harrison Turner-Hazel, a name for an actor if ever there were one!) must go off to war; symbolically, Kirby’s erratic Stimson tells the ladies of the Congregational Church choir (Jess Murray’s outstanding Mrs Myrtle Webb among them) that they sing too loudly.
At the play’s core is a love story, one of young lovers, neighbours George Gibbs (Frankie Bounds), the sports jock, and Emily Webb (Emily Belcher), the brightest pupil at school. The Romeo and Juliet of Wilder’s world, their courtship scenes are a delight, but the marriage ceremony shocks: a forewarning of Act Three’s darkness to come. Bounds junior and Belcher are terrific in those scenes, and Belcher is better still in the play’s stark climax.
America’s greatest play? You decide, but your first decision should be to visit Our Town and its story of everyday life and the extraordinary in the ordinary, but hurry, it will soon be leaving town.
Amerrycan Theatre in Our Town, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
AS Flying Scotsman meets virtual reality, Charles Hutchinson goes full speed ahead to keep you on the right track for entertainment by rail, on land or indoors.
New attraction of the week: Flying Scotsman VR, National Railway Museum, York
THE new virtual reality experience at the NRM celebrates Flying Scotsman in the iconic steam locomotive’s centenary year, taking visitors on a journey back in time and around the world, bringing the golden age of rail travel to life.
Commissioned by the Science Museum Group and developed in collaboration with Figment Productions and Sarner International, the experience uses free-roaming VR headsets to provide a multi-sensory experience that includes an understanding of how steam locomotion works from inside the boiler. Admission to the NRM is free but a charge does apply for Flying Scotman VR. Booking is advised at railwaymuseum.org.uk.
York stalwart of the week: Steve Cassidy Band, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Sunday, 7.30pm
THE Steve Cassidy Band and friends perform a selection of rock, country music and ballads, combining something old with something new.
York singer, guitarist and songwriter – and former headmaster – Steve recorded in the 1960s with York-born composer John Barry and pioneering producer Joe Meek. Tomorrow night he is joined by his band members and guests at his favourite theatre. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Retro gig of the week: Midge Ure & Band Electronica, The Voice And Visions Tour, Grand Opera House, York, Sunday, 7.30pm
ON 2019’s The 1980 Tour, Midge Ure & Band Electronica revisited Ultravox’s Vienna album and Visage’s debut LP. Now, on his twice-rearranged follow-up tour, Voice And Visions, Ure marks the 40th anniversary of Ultravox’s synth-driven, experimental Rage In Eden and Quartet albums. Box office: atgtickets.com.york.
Art talk of the week: Lincoln Lightfoot, Grand Opera House, York, Thursday, 6pm
YORK Open Studios 2023 artist Lincoln Lightfoot presents a 90-minute Grand Opera House Creative Learning artist talk and workshop to complement his ongoing exhibition in the Cumberland Street theatre’s box office.
In his retro art, Lincoln explores surrealist concepts reminiscent of the absurdist poster art that captured the Fifties and Sixties’ B-movie fixation with comical science-fiction disasters, but now played out on the 21st century streets and landmark buildings of York. Tickets: atgtickets.com/york.
Likely to cause a stir: Gary Meikle, 2.5, York Barbican, Friday, 8pm
SCOTTISH comedian Gary Meikle returns to York Barbican with his third live show, or 2.5 as he calls it. Top professionals and industry people may have advised him not to be so crude or edgy, but “as a kid growing up in the care system, I was told that I’d be either dead or in jail by the time I was 30, so I tend not to listen to others and do things my way,” he says.
In a “continued celebration of me being me” in defiance of cancel culture, Meikle discusses equality between the sexes, medication side effects, his loathing of stupid questions and “how our ancestors were idiots”. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Tour de force of the week: Guy Masterson, Under Milk Wood, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Friday, 7.30pm
CELEBRATING the 70th anniversary of Under Milk Wood, Olivier Award winner Guy Masterson portrays one day in the life of Llareggub, a fictional town by the sea somewhere in Wales, as he assiduously conjures up all 69 of Dylan Thomas’s ebullient inhabitants in a feat of memory and physical virtuosity.
Complemented by Matt Clifford’s soundscape, Under Milk Wood is bawdy and beautiful, sad and sensual and, through the music of language, leaves indelible, unforgettable images of humanity. Masterson, Richard Burton’s nephew by the way, has clocked up more than 2,000 performances, from Swansea to the West End, Trinidad to New Zealand, over 30 years. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Made of Steel: Jessica Steel, The Crescent, York, May 7, 7.30pm
YORK powerhouse singer Jessica Steel performs her October 2022 debut album, Higher Frequencies, in full for the first time.
A fixture at Big Ian Donaghy’s A Night To Remember charity concerts at York Barbican, hairdressing salon boss Jessica made the album with songwriter-producer Andy Firth, late of the Britpop band The Dandys. “There’s an interesting contrast between uplifting music and sad lyrics throughout the album, as well as a recurring theme of finding hope through adversity,” she says. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.
Commotion incoming: Lloyd Cole, York Barbican, October 17
LLOYD Cole will team up with former Commotions compadres Blair Cowan and Neil Clark at York Barbican for the only Yorkshire gig of his 17-date autumn tour to showcase his 12th solo album, On Pain, set for release on June 23.
On his first York appearance since a solo show at Fibbers in May 2000, Cole will play two sets, the first acoustic, the second, electric with the band. Box office: lloydcole.com/live or yorkbarbican.co.uk.
In Focus: Tim Crouch, Truth’s A Dog Must To Kennel, York International Shakespeare Festival, York St John University Creative Centre, tonight, 8pm
TIM Crouch’s 2022 Edinburgh Fringe First winner plays the York International Shakespeare Festival after visiting New York and playing a London season.
Taking on the character of The Fool, Shakespeare’s King Lear meets stand-up comedy meets the metaverse as Crouch dons a virtual reality headset to explore Lear in a post-pandemic world and interrogate theatrical form and the essence of live performance.
“It’s reductive to say I have a favourite Shakespeare play: King Lear. They’re all great but I have a relationship with this play that goes a little deeper,” says the Bognor Regis-born experimental theatre maker, actor, playwright and director, whose work rejects theatrical convention, especially realism, and invites audiences to participate in each performance’s creation.
“I played Lear at university [Bristol] at a King Lear Symposium at Ferrara in northern Italy, at the age of 20, which is a little young! I then directed a 90-minute production for the Royal Shakespeare Company ten years ago.”
The play contains everything, he contends. “Complex relationships. Love. Madness. Families. Obscene wealth and the hypocrisy of wealth. Towards the end, Lear becomes a socialist champion. He has this moment of enlightenment, realising that everything on top of that is superfluous,” says Tim.
“This egotistical figure has his power removed, his ego removed, discovering compassion in the truest sense.”
Tim then refracted King Lear through the Covid shroud of the past three years. “I also saw Lear in Trump and in some degree in Boris Johnson, seeing the world governed by egomaniacs, of which Lear is an example,” he says.
“Or like Succession [the television series about a wealthy family at war], where Brian Cox plays this grotesque maniacal figure. It’s Rupert Murdoch really!”
Tim views King Lear through the eyes of The Fool. “He doesn’t have a name; he’s slightly mysterious, he’s depressed and he leaves before the end of the play, before anyone has been killed,” he notes.
“He just disappears, and I’m fascinated by people leaving, just getting up and going, so I dramatise his moment of departure in this show.”
Tim exposes King Lear through a modern lens. “I don’t know what’s gone wrong with the world. Maybe it was always this way, but there are these deep schisms that are dividing the world. Men like Trump,” he says. “Playing this show in New York was extraordinary! Over here, there is civil war in Brexit, just as there is civil war in Lear’s family.”
Experiencing theatre only digitally during the pandemic has had an impact on his show too. “As a theatre maker, my passion for live theatre was exacerbated by lockdown when you could only watch theatre online,” says Tim.
“’Live theatre’ is tautological because, to me, theatre is only live, whereas in the pandemic, we had an image of theatre that was only on a screen, so that prompted me to put on a virtual reality headset at times in this play.”
What happens then? “The conceit of this piece is that I take The Fool back to the point of his departure, and now he will witness his exit, the blinding of Gloucester and what I think is the most powerful scene in theatre ever: the Dover cliffs scene where the blinded Gloucester’s imagination is brought into play through his son’s act of imagination, saving his father,” says Tim.
“Theatre is an adult form of imagination, taking us to a different place and learning from that journey, but keeping us safe while doing that. Shakespeare’s lines are very precise; they are an invitation to see what I see through language, to then narrate The Fool’s return through this middle-aged bald guy [Tim is 59] in a headset, that people will experience through their ears.”
Stand-up comedy features in Tim’s performance too. “That’s partly a nod to The Fool, wondering wondering ‘what would a contemporary Fool be’? I think it would be Stewart Lee, a comedian who doesn’t have an agent and does no social media,” he says.
“I don’t claim to be a stand-up but use the form to say things about the experience of being together in a room. When we’re in the same place at the same time, just look at how brilliant and transformative we can be through using our mind, our body, our imagination.
“But theatre is increasingly becoming the preserve of the wealthy, though the imagination dematerialises that, not succumbing to any socio-economic structure. Children have the greatest imagination, but sadly that then gets replaced with wanting to be TV stars and wanting to make money.”
Assessing the “international” in the York International Shakespeare Festival, Tim says: “The thing that I’m endlessly inspired by is that Shakespeare does and yet doesn’t exist in his plays when there’s now a thirst for autobiographical and biographical plays, which limits them.
“Whereas there’s a quality to his work and to the work of many playwrights of that time who didn’t nail their colours to one mast and can be interpreted by each age, nationality and culture. There’s an objectivity to these plays that requires whoever does a production to find themselves in them – which should be the case with every play, I think.”