Printable CopyOUR TOWN
The Princes Players @ Prince Alfred College
Prince Alfred College
Until 08 Sep 2018

Review by Sarah Westgarth

There’s a reason why the work of Thornton Wilder has become such a staple of high school Drama classes. The large ensembles full of eccentric, well-defined characters are perfect for casting a varied student cohort, and also offer the opportunity to expose young people to some of the greatest plays every written. “Our Town” also has the added benefit of being simple to stage, as the script literally demands no set or scenery. Despite this veneer of simplicity, the play is deceptively complex. While on its surface it may be read on its most basic, surface level, the nuance and wry dialogue provide a subtle social commentary on the nature of all aspects of a human life. Leave it to Wilder to try and capture the entirety of the human experience in two hours—and actually succeed. Prince Alfred College’s production of the classic is a noble effort, featuring some fine up-and-coming actors, and utilising the intimacy of the Prince Philip theatre beautifully. There is strong direction by Paula Little and the technical elements of the play are incredibly effective. Ultimately, though, this is still a high school production—and there is little about it that makes you forget that.

The cast is made up of past and present students from Prince Alfred College, with the female roles played by students from Seymour College and Saint Peters Girls College. They have all been generally well cast, and the metatextual structure of the play allows for a suspension of disbelief seeing children playing grownups; however, these are still very young actors attempting to take on the maturity of complicated and weathered adults, and the depth just isn’t there.

The pivotal role of the Stage Manager is gallantly taken on by the fresh faced Angus Porter and he is the stand out performer of the piece. The Stage Manager has the seminal role of guiding and commenting on the action, providing a framework for the moments we see play out in Grover’s Corners. For someone only in Year 8, he manages to have a remarkable amount of gravitas, and his youth means he takes on a kind of angelic, other worldly quality. While he at times he stumbled over his extensive dialogue, most likely due to getting his voice around the required accent, he nevertheless always held the audience in the palm of his hand.

The accent work in this show in general is inconsistent, and becomes a hindrance more often than not. At times you can see the actors focusing on saying the words with the right pronunciation, rather than the meaning behind them. The Australia dialect slips through a lot, taking us out of the moment, and getting in the way of the emotional impact. Allowing the cast to use their natural accents in order to establish consistency, and giving them the freedom to focus on the complex character work, may have been a better choice. That being said, the efforts made by the actors in the cast is commendable. Despite their inexperience, there is not one member who shows a lack of focus or dedication to their roles. Their movements are precise, their expressions thoughtful, and they are a credit to the direction by Paula Little. Her vision is clear here, and she has clearly offered strong guidance to the cast. She highlights the subtext of the script, and isn’t afraid of letting silence say more than words. The use of the space is also highly effective, with depth and levels being used for both practical and conceptual reasons. The detail in Act 3 of the set is truly stunning, and it’s clear Little has a deep understanding of the broad thematic concerns of the play.

While the actors are all well-trained, the inner life of the characters never feels truly internalised. Their lack of experience and maturity means nothing really lands the way it should. James Walters as George Gibbs is suitably sweet, though being only fourteen means he hits his limitations quickly as the character ages older than him. His counterpart in Georgia Theofanous as Emily Webb is three years his senior, and she brings an abrasive demeanour to the character that is grating. There is little light and shade in her performance, and the emotional beats often feel forced. In fact, many of the dramatic moments in this show feel unearned, as the performers simply lack the dramatic weight to make them land. Apart from this, the rest of the supporting cast are solid, and there are some great moments—the pint-size professor in Act One played by a Year 5 boy is a delight—but neither the comedy nor drama resonates as well as one would like. This, of course, can be simply chalked up to the inexperience of the cast, and definitely not a lack of effort on their behalf.

The highlight of the night comes from an unexpected place: the sound and music. Fleur Green not only plays some beautiful compositions on a range of instruments that set the perfect mood, but also engages in some spectacular foley work, using everyday objects and sometimes her own voice to create all of the sounds of Grover Corner’s, from the chickens in the yard to a knife scraping across a plate. The effect is truly stunning, as it highlights the performative nature of what we’re viewing, as well as draw your attention to the details of the world that’s being created for us. “Our Town” is all about the little things that make up a life, and this element complements Wilder’s work perfectly.

It is always a privilege to see a great piece of theatre performed, and I have no doubt of the valuable experience this has offered the students involved. Paula Little is clearly trying to build something with the performing arts department at Prince Alfred College, and as a fellow Drama teacher, I salute it. At the end of the day though this is a school production, with all the typical flaws and faults that come along with that. Not all members of the cast are gifted actors, some nuance is blurred in the challenge of an unfamiliar accent, and a lot of the emotional beats are lost. Despite this, the effort of the entire cast and crew deserves to be applauded. I hope the memories of being involved in “Our Town” live on in their students minds for many years.