Quality sacrificed for quantity
The ethos of the annual Fresher’s Play is egalitarian – as many people as possible should be given the opportunity to get involved. I find this a fundamentally flawed notion. It forces directors to opt for plays with large casts, in the hope it will accommodate the large scale of involvement. This often comes at the expense of choosing smaller, better plays, ones which may not offer such a wealth of opportunities to participate, but are perhaps more worth putting on. (Oscar Blustin, the director of the ’07 Fresher’s Play, cunningly evaded this issue by putting on a production of Schafer’s Amadeus, a play with effectively only two characters, but a vast supporting cast of bit parts. The two main performances were excellent, and everyone, as it were, got to have a go.)
I feel that this dilemma is exemplified by this year’s Fresher’s Play. Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, definitely has a large cast, and so lots of people were given the opportunity to get involved in the production. Unfortunately, Our Town is not a good play. Not a good play at all. It chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, a fictionalised American town, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The story comes to focus on Emily Webb (Emily Saddler) and George Gibbs (Josh Williams), and charts their romance, their marriage, and the death of Emily in childbirth. The play purports to explore the meaning and significance of human existence through the everyday lives of its characters, but its thematic pretensions are sabotaged by Wilder’s clumsy writing, slight characterisation, contrived poeticism, and hackneyed philosophizing. The play features a group of Stage Managers, who consciously frame the drama as a play, but such metatheatrical posturing, post-Beckett, seems horribly antiquated and quaint. How it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama I will never know.
Call me a theatrical fascist, but I think the problem with the ethos of the Fresher’s Play is that it inevitably attracts people whose willingness to participate far exceeds their theatrical abilities. This was particularly evident in the performances in Our Town, and the whole production had the distinctly amateurish feel of a ‘first night.’ The blocking was clumsy, characterisation was maddeningly inconsistent, and frequent missed cues made the pacing erratic. The performances felt unfinished and awkward, but most all (and there is no easy way to say this), they felt vapid. They lacked life or energy, and there were countless times where the cast were just reciting their lines without connecting emotionally in any real way to their characters.
There was a gloriously chaotic opening, where the whole cast swamped the stage and enacted their daily routines, which, though a little ungainly in its staging, was full of life and character. But after that, the life seemed to be sucked out of it, the joy and the energy seemed to seep out of some unseen wound in the production’s side (God, that last strained analogy sounds it could have been written by Thornton Wilder himself). I do not like to single out individual performers unless I have something constructive to add, so suffice it to say that the acting was almost uniformly wooden.
Technically, the production was messy. The inelegant and often confusing lighting changes failed to make clear which part of the stage we were supposed to be concentrating on, and I often found myself drawn to an area of the stage long after it had become the focus of a scene. The sound effects used were at times incongruous or irrelevant, but the music by Ross Blake was richly evocative and effectively used, nicely punctuating key scene changes. The Assembly Rooms’ stage does not lend itself well to productions involving large casts, and it did not help that the production was clumsily staged. The set often seemed to be militating against the efforts of the actors to navigate it, and you could see some members of the cast struggle valiantly against its geography.
This chaos seems to me to be due to poor direction. It was certainly lacking in focus and directorial rigour. The production often felt like it was running on autopilot, and I think director Andra Catincescu needed to be so much more demanding and precise with her cast and her technical crew.
I am perhaps being too unkind. Things did pick up a bit in the third act, which focuses on Emily Webb’s experience of the afterlife. It was the most sustained part of the production, a lot more controlled and evocative, the most tonally interesting, and the dominance of red in the colour palette at this point was a neat directorial flourish from Catincescu. There were some occasional sparks of greatness in the performances. Sophie Hodkinson, as Mrs. Soames, had some lovely asides to the audience during the wedding scene between Emily and George, and was the only member of the cast who I felt invested some genuine human warmth in her performance. David Jenkins, similarly, brought great confidence and comic timing to his role as Mr. Webb, but suffered unfortunately from the same awkwardness that afflicted the whole cast. Emily Saddler has the potential to be a great leading lady, but she unfortunately struggled to flesh out a hollow, one-note character. Similarly, Charlotte Deans and Emma Purcell, as Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs respectively, showed great promise, but their performances wandered too frequently into melodrama. Despite how I feel about their work in this production, I am looking forward to seeing these actors in future productions, perhaps with a more exacting director.