November 28, 2014

It’s the People, not the Place: London Then and Now Courtesy of Dr. George Berguno

While London has seen several alterations throughout the years, some things never change...the London Underground has been a key part of the city since 1863, photo courtesy of the Museum of London
             2014 is a glorious time to be living in London. The city is teeming with life and the smell of opportunity lingers in the air over young and hungry inhabitants in this success-driven society. London itself has undergone major changes throughout the years and unquestionably the people living here undergo changes vis-à-vis its influence. I had the pleasure to talk to one of my psychology professors at university, who has been living in London since the 1970s. Dr. George Berguno gave me his perspective on how the city’s developed and what life in London meant for him at the height of its booming expansion and social excitement. The following interview just goes to show that everyone has a story to tell if you take the time to sit down and listen to them. While London is eternally beautiful, it is nothing without the people you cross paths with here, the people you can share the beauty with.

             I would like to give a big thank you to Dr. Berguno for making this interview possible.

Laura Rutkowski: When did you first move to London?

Dr. George Berguno: Well, this is my second time in London. The first time I came to London, it was just before my 14th birthday and I came with my family, so I went to school for three years here. I don’t have a lot to say about London for those three years, because my life consisted of going to school and going home and that sort of thing. As a teenager, I didn’t really go out that much in London. After that, I moved to Paris and I did go out a lot in Paris, but the first time I came to London, I didn’t really see that much of it.

Then I came back to do my bachelor’s degree in psychology, so I was 20 when I came back and I came on my own. I didn’t come with my family and I lived at university, but I was in London every weekend and often the middle of the week as well. I’m talking about the 1970s, so London was a very different kind of place then. It was an exciting place, but it was also a very quiet city in many ways. For example, I remember Sunday was one of those days where there weren’t very many places to go that would be open and you could do things. London wasn’t the kind of city that stayed open all night, except for certain areas like Soho, which never slept. It was a very different kind of city, a much more relaxed city than it is now, so that was in the 70s.

Soho's Bar Italia (opened in 1949) at 22 Frith Street was formally the home of  John Logie Baird. From there, he gave the first public demonstration of the television in 1926, photo courtesy of Time Out London
In the 80s I moved to Fulham, southwest London, so fairly central and that’s when really I suppose my London life started, after graduation. Not when I was a student so much as after that and my favorite place was, and maybe it still is, Soho. I used to go to Soho a lot. Maybe I should tell you this - when I was at school, I had a friend called Leo and Leo was a jazz enthusiast. I wasn’t, but we were very close friends and his love of jazz was so infectious that we ended up going to jazz concerts a lot and so in the days when I was a university student, in fact I think maybe before, we used to go to Ronnie Scott’s.

We would get in for a pound, because Ronnie Scott, who was the owner of the club, liked us and so he would just allow us in for a pound and I think we did this when we were underage as well. We were not supposed to be there and we didn’t have money, so we would just buy one drink and sit in a corner. We would make that one drink last the whole night and the whole night meant we would get there around 9:30pm, because that’s when they opened the doors. I don’t know why, but the band never came on before 10:30pm and then they would play until about four in the morning, so one drink for quite a long time. In a way, the waiters and waitresses were very happy with that, because they didn’t have to serve us, but we would go regularly. I was at Ronnie Scott’s every week. I got to see a lot of famous jazz musicians at the time and so that is what I remember about London - Soho, Ronnie Scott’s, and there were a lot of jazz clubs in those days.

Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club is still going strong as one of the oldest jazz clubs in the world; for more information, visit their website here, photo courtesy of LondonTown
Now there are only a handful of jazz clubs compared to what there were back in the 70s and 80s. It was quite remarkable. I don’t know whether some of these clubs are still going. I don’t know whether the 100 Club is still going. We used to go there as well, but I know clubs like the Fleet Jazz Club, which was very prominent in north London, closed down. I don’t know why, but I remember life revolved around Soho mainly in those days, because there weren’t many other places to go.

My other favorite place was the South Bank, but the South Bank was very different from the way it is now. Now it’s a very crowded area, full of shops, but back in the 70s and 80s, there were no shops at all, so there was nothing to do and of course they didn’t have concerts in the daytime. They only had concerts in the evening, so in the daytime, it was one of the quietest areas in London to go for a walk. You could walk along the Embankment and it’s very beautiful, but now if you go there, especially on the weekend, it’s just overrun by people and it’s loud and there are restaurants and [everyone is] packed next to each other. It’s not the same anymore and Soho has also changed. Soho has become even more vibrant than it was before, but it also means it’s overrun by people and of course a lot of tourists gather there, so it doesn’t have the same feel about it, but I remember I’ve always had fond memories of Soho.

I can testify that walking along the South Bank (pictured here with St. Paul's Cathedral and the Gherkin), especially at night, shows London in a very majestic and romantic light, photo courtesy of South Bank Employers' Group 
LR: What do you think has been a good addition to London and a bad addition to London?

GB: A good addition? I’m not sure; I’ll have to think about that one. I’m not even sure that there’s a bad addition. It’s just changed. I don’t regret that it’s changed. I don’t regret that it’s become a different kind of city. In a way, what made this city for me were the people that I knew and they’ve all moved away, so of course for me the main thing is it’s not the London I knew because Leo moved to Brighton at some point. I think what happened is that London just became very expensive, an expensive place to live in. I think he married young and had children and just found London to be a very expensive place to have a family, maybe not the best place to have a family either, so he moved to Brighton. Other friends also moved out; gradually they moved away and so I think that that was something that changed London for me. I’m not that concerned with the physical changes to it or the fact that it’s more crowded. I don’t mind it.

London has welcomed many physical changes to its skyline, as seen here in the 1970s (top), the 1980s (center), and 2014 (bottom), photos courtesy of Flexioffices
I think the other thing was that I used to, when I was at university, play guitar as a hobby. I was competent as a guitarist and I applied for a job as a classical guitarist in a quartet. I auditioned and I got it and so for a year I played while I was a student. I played for this classical quartet and mainly we played baroque music, but I was more interested in folk music. While I was at university, I made a friend called Carlos, who was a jazz guitarist, so it’s a little bit like Leo. He infected me with a love of jazz and so gradually I started moving away from classical and folk and ended up playing jazz guitar on a nylon-string guitar. In the last year of university, he was studying computer science and I was in psychology, we gave some recitals, but they were jazz recitals and suddenly we were in demand.

We were being asked to play here and there and so somewhere in the mid-80s, we did a lot of gigs, a lot of shows. These were professional shows. Carlos and I started playing in 1979 when we were still students and then in the early 80s we gave recitals and not many, about five or six a year. Somewhere in the mid-80s, we started playing a lot and we played at most jazz clubs in London. We kind of hit the jazz scene. We never did Ronnie Scott’s, but we did all the other clubs. We played at the Southbank [Centre] many, many times and we did recordings. I did session work. I produced some albums, but Carlos and I only played for a short period, because he also moved to Brighton and found it too stressful to come back to London.

The Southbank Centre (built in the 1960s), one of the venues where Dr. Berguno and his quintet used to play their jazz shows, photo courtesy of Building Design
In the end, I had to get other musicians and I formed a quintet. That period of about 1984/1985 to about 1990/1991 is about a six-year period in which I was doing a lot of jazz and that was a period when I thought I was really living London a lot. I mean, I saw all the good things and the bad things about London, because when you go and you do a show, you go to all kinds of places. Another beautiful memory of London is those years that I was playing jazz, but then I decided to go back to university to do my master’s and then eventually my PhD, so I put the guitar away, but I met a lot of musicians. I knew John Martyn, don’t know if the name will mean anything to you. John Martyn was a very famous guitarist who was part of a folk revival in the United Kingdom. I knew Bert Jansch. I knew Van Morrison and I was very friendly with Isaac Guillory, who was a very good friend of mine, a very close friend, and he was a guitarist I greatly admired.

Famous singer-songwriter Van Morrison frequented a jazz café in Notting Hill, where he would watch Dr. Berguno's gigs, photo courtesy of Flickr
Isaac, at one point, moved into the same area. We both were living in Fulham. We were walking distance away from each other. We had a Tuesday night ritual where we would always meet at his house for dinner and seven or eight hours of playing guitar. We had this sort of thing, which was really very, very nice and we never performed together. We were very different kinds of musicians, but I really loved his music and then I thought when I finished my PhD, I’ll go back to music a little bit in some sort of way, but Isaac died. He died young. He died the year that I finished my PhD in fact. When I was getting ready to go back to this, somehow his death was symbolic for me and I never went back to music then.

I don’t regret giving up performing, although it was an exciting time, was an exciting way to live life in London. I do regret giving up session work, because of all the things I did, the thing that I loved the most was being in the studio recording. That was an extraordinary experience. It suited me better than being on stage. I wasn’t really good as a performer. I didn’t have a great stage presence. I was good at playing the guitar, but in the studio I felt that was really my element, so I regret giving that up, so that’s a shame. That whole period from the 80s until the early 90s, I thought I was really into London thanks to music and thanks to these two friends I met at school and at college, who were jazz enthusiasts.

LR: If someone visited you in London, what are the must-see places you would take them to that people wouldn’t necessarily know about?

GB: There are certain areas of the East End which if you do go to at night, you would see London as it was back at around about 1900. I mean, it really is very interesting. I discovered it by accident once. I think I’d gone to some sort of job interview somewhere and I lost my way and I ended up in an area called Bow. It’s in the East End and it was getting dark and I remember walking around thinking this is Charles Dickens country. It was really very strange; there was nothing modern about the area, so I think that that’s what I would do. I would take them to something like that and tourists don’t go there at all. You see London, you get a sense of London as it was, say, a hundred years ago.

Venture to the East End of London to discover what Dr. Berguno calls "Charles Dickens country," photo courtesy of East End Tours
LR: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that.

GB: I guess your average tourist doesn’t really want to do that. I mean, they want to go see the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels, but that was an eye-opener when that happened to me. There are parts of the East End which haven’t changed at all, haven’t been developed in any way, and you can still see the original buildings at nighttime. You feel transported back in time. 

LR: You mentioned before that you’ve met some memorable people. What can you tell me about them?

GB: [chuckles] Oh yeah, lots of memorable people. Well, they were mainly musicians. Van Morrison I met because I used to play regularly in a small club in Notting Hill and he used to live in that area and he used to frequent a café that I frequented, so we bumped into each other a lot. He used to come to my concerts [laughs], because he lived in the area and he would sit quietly in the corner and just listen and then in the break I’d get coffee for him and that kind of thing, so he was not a friend, just someone I knew for a little while.

Isaac actually was also a famous musician in his time. He was a virtuoso and he was recognized as one of the great folk innovators and I mentioned John Martyn and Bert Jansch. I’ve met them regularly over the years and they were great, great musicians, absolutely great musicians. I was friendly with Peter Whitehead, the filmmaker. We’re still friends. Peter Whitehead became famous in the 60s. He did a number of films. He did a film on the Rolling Stones. In fact, he was the Rolling Stones’ diary keeper and I met Peter in the 70s and so in the 70s and 80s, we met very frequently. It was films that drew us together. I got interested in films.

Dr. Berguno is friends with film director Peter Whitehead, who produced the Rolling Stones' first documentary film, Charlie Is My Darling (1966), photo courtesy of Circle Cinema
I met him through a strange coincidence in Soho again. He had a flat in Soho Square and I borrowed one of his films one day when I was still a student and I took it to university and showed it and, I don’t know if I should mention this, but it was a film that was censored. We weren’t allowed to show it publicly, but I did anyway, so I did that twice and that caused a stir at the university. It’s a story about incest and Oedipus, but very clever, very clever. He became known as sort of a cult figure in British cinema and he’s always avoided the limelight. [He’s] kind of elusive and a recluse, but his films are always offbeat and uncompromising, never compromised in any sort of way.

In recent years, there’s been a real interest in reevaluation of his work, but he doesn’t live in London either now. He moved; he used to live in South Kensington, so we used to meet in South Kensington a lot, but he doesn’t really have much energy now for doing interviews and that kind of thing. I think you might find some interviews on YouTube where he talks about the Rolling Stones. [There were] other characters who were a bit discreditable, but I don’t want to name them. I knew a lot of interesting people in those days.

LR: What has been your favorite and worst experience or memory of living in London?

GB: Gosh, I don’t know if I have a best, because I have so many good memories of London. One of the problems with London is it has a dark side and I did witness an armed robbery once, which was shocking to see someone rob a place with a gun. You really only see it in the movies, but it happened and I was inches away from the gunman, standing right next to him.

LR: What did you do?

GB: I stood still. He actually fired at the owner of the shop. He fired the gun. When he fired the gun, he dropped the bag of money and it fell at my feet and then the money poured over my shoes. That’s an ugly side to London, but I came out of it unscathed. It’s not a nice memory, but I have too many good memories to know which one would be the best one. You get the chance to meet so many people and I met Derek Jarman, a film director.

Patisserie Valerie in Soho has stood the test of time, photo courtesy of the Museum of London
I had tea with Derek Jarman in Valerie’s in Soho. It was a crowded place and the waitress said there’s only one seat left and went up to the man who was there and said, “Would you mind sharing?” It was Derek Jarman and we chatted about films and he was a very interesting character. Colin Wilson, the writer Colin Wilson. I remember I spent an evening with him. Do you know the book The Three Faces of Eve? [She] had these personality changes. I met her. She was on her sixteenth personality at that point. I met her, talked to her, and had dinner with Bianca Jagger once [laughs]. Yeah, London was a good place!

Bianca Jagger in 1979, photo courtesy of Andy Warhol
LR: If you could relive just one day from the past, what would it be and why?

GB: Oh gosh, I don’t know. Too many beautiful days to relive. I don’t know about a particular day, but if I could have a particular experience again that I don’t have anymore, then I suppose I would like to spend one day back in the recording studio again. That would be an extraordinary thing. That would be a major event, but even the musicians that I played with, I had a quintet, they’ve all moved out as well. They’ve all gone.

LR: Would you say that the people make the place then?

GB: Yeah, people made the place. It was the buzz and the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and that was the nice thing about music. You could meet people from all walks of life and maybe why I liked studio work was because it allowed me to just meet people who normally I wouldn’t associate with and so I never turned down a session job. Whatever the band, whatever music they played, I always accepted their offer, so I remember playing once with a punk band. I don’t listen to punk music, but I played with them and I absolutely enjoyed the whole experience. I played with an Indian band without knowing anything about Indian music and it was quite clear from the beginning I was out of my depth, but I enjoyed it. I mean, that kind of thing, that’s what London was.

LR: If you could bring something back from the past to the present, what would you bring back?

GB: Well, it wouldn’t be anything to do with the city. Actually, I’ll change my answer to the previous question I think. Instead of a day in the recording studio, I wouldn’t mind having a day with Isaac.

Folk guiatist Isaac Guillory, fellow musician and friend of Dr. Berguno's, photo courtesy of Nick Drake
LR: Did you ever have any experience in Carnaby Street? I know it was really big and bustling back then.

GB: I’ve been many times to Carnaby Street, not a particularly favorite part of London for me. I always preferred Soho and places where there were old bookstores, like near the British Museum. I like that area a lot; I still do. I still frequent that area. There are still a lot of nice bookstores around there. I could spend the whole day just browsing.

A glimpse of Carnaby Street in 1973, photo courtesy of Time Out London
LR: I think that’s all I have for you, so is there anything else you want to talk about or cover?

GB: No, I think I’ve given a good idea. It was a nice trip down memory lane [laughs].

LR: [laughs] I’m glad!

November 23, 2014

Frankenstein: Till Death Us Do Part

I was just a little bit two-faced for Halloween...
             I hope you all had a suitably ghoulish Halloween! I dressed up as a Day of the Dead sugar skull and was just a little bit two-faced…I did my make-up myself and only tried the look out for the first time on the 31st! I’m glad it turned out well and I spent my evening on a boat that cruised the River Thames. It was lovely to grab some air and see some sights from the top deck, the most impressive being everyone’s costumes!

             I know I’m a bit behind the power curve since Halloween has already been and gone and we’re on our way to Christmas now, but I would like to share how I kick started my Halloween with Frankenstein. It too deals with a myriad of two-faced behavior and all things nightmarish, a lot of those things being manmade (quite literally).

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated roles as Victor Frankenstein and his Creature in the stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's famous novel, photo courtesy of National Theatre Live
             Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle, first exploded at the National Theatre in London in 2011. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated roles as Victor Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Creature in this alternative rendition of Mary Shelley’s novel, adapted by Nick Dear. During that same year, the production was broadcast at movie theatres worldwide in association with the National Theatre Live program. Once again, Frankenstein ran for a limited time in 2012, with Encore screenings in 2013. Almost half a million people have flocked to movie theatres to watch the retelling of this famous tale.

             Just in time for Halloween, I was lucky enough to catch the rebroadcast of the production this year. Oh, what I would have given to see the production live! I suppose I am comforted by the fact that I only moved to London in 2012…Frankenstein was brought back by popular demand and it wasn’t hard to see why. The immense cult following surrounding Cumberbatch was already an indication that it was set to be a smash hit. However, I am a huge Miller as well as Cumberbatch fan. I found it interesting that they were cast together, especially since Cumberbatch is known for his role as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock and Miller plays his counterpart across the pond in the New York-based Elementary.

Miller (left) and Cumberbatch (right) as Victor Frankenstein, photos courtesy of National Theatre Live
             I quickly booked myself in for the October 30th and November 6th showings, the former starring Cumberbatch as Creature/Miller as Frankenstein and the latter starring Miller as Creature/Cumberbatch as Frankenstein. I wanted to compare the two, and as they were only spread a week apart, it gave me the perfect opportunity to witness how they tackled both characters.

             The most obvious thing to note would have been whether they were each better suited to a particular role. However, I am going to put this out there right now and say that I cannot tell you which viewing I enjoyed more, because they were both so different. Cumberbatch and Miller really added their own flair to what I saw as rather grueling roles.

Miller (top) and Cumberbatch (bottom) as Creature, photos courtesy of National Theatre Live
             Both viewings were surprisingly not as packed as I was expecting, but that kept the rustle of popcorn bags and indistinct chatter at an all time low. I think it’s important to mention at this point that before Frankenstein began, the audience was shown a clip that delved into the making of the production. Cumberbatch cited videos of stroke victims in recovery as his research to play Creature, while Miller tapped into his inner two-year old. These descriptions, in my opinion, clarified how the actors’ envisaged playing the characters. The different interpretations left me feeling different emotions towards the same character.

             What we can perhaps call a “birthing” scene was the intense opener, to say the least. Creature, the proof of Frankenstein’s craftsmanship, awoke in an awkward burst of movement and flailing. He emerged from where he was entrapped: a “womb-like” disc comprised of opaque material. The disc pulsed with the silhouette of a fully-grown man who came out wriggling like a baby. Then, in front of our eyes occurred an evolution: a transition from crawling to falling to stumbling to walking. When Frankenstein walked in on his creation, he cast him off because of his monstrous appearance.

The "womb-like" disc from which Frankenstein's Creature was "born," photo courtesy of National Theatre Live
             At the heart of Frankenstein is a very sad story. Having read the original book, I would claim that this production stayed true to Shelley’s intentions more than any of its predecessors. As the clip before the viewing expressed, Frankenstein the play gave Creature a voice. He has been previously conveyed as a monstrosity, someone to be feared, a character of the horror genre. Above all of that, however, he is a man who wants to be loved, which is a pleasure that no person should be denied in life.

             Creature entered the world as a blank slate, but he quickly became educated and acquainted with the ways of human nature. In the play, the only kindness he was shown was from a blind man whose opinions could not be swayed by the sight of him. When the man’s son and wife finally met Creature, they were not quite as welcoming. Abandoned by his creator, confused about his origins, and alone as society’s cast-off, is it any wonder that Creature developed a complex? He later goes on to burn, rape, kill, and manipulate.

The 1931 film Frankenstein, where Frankenstein's Creature does not speak, is just one example of how Shelley's character has been misrepresented, photo courtesy of IMDb 
             Viewing Frankenstein at a movie theatre rather than an actual theatre did not come without its advantages. The cameras focused on the right people and areas of the stage at the right time. This provided the audience with an all-access pass to the up-close emotions of Cumberbatch and Miller and their phenomenal make-up! The transformation took around two and a half hours to recreate each night. Hundreds of dimmer lights glowed and sparked on the ceiling. During particularly prominent scenes, the lights flickered in a surge of inspiration, as if to say, “Eureka!”

             Miller made for a cold and calculating Frankenstein. His portrayal of a crazed man obsessed with the genius of science counteracted Cumberbatch’s tamer, softer Frankenstein. Where Miller appeared deeply unconcerned about the relationships dissolving around him in the pursuit of his desire to create life, Cumberbatch still appeared torn and eaten up with remorse. In terms of the role of Creature, on the other hand, Miller was childlike and innocent, a performance which really pulled at the heartstrings. Miller was misunderstood and seemed to be driven by circumstances whereas Cumberbatch evoked less pity and acted with less naïvety, more brutality.

The impressive array of lights above the stage acted as a reminder of an all-important force: electricity, photo courtesy of National Theatre Live 
             I cannot even imagine how physically, nonetheless emotionally, taxing the roles were to play. It must have been exhausting for Miller and Cumberbatch to get into character, for both characters! Miller and Cumberbatch exposed their vulnerabilities on stage, proving just how good they are as actors. Creature was not born knowing how to walk or talk, so we followed the painstaking process with him as he learned. Miller and Cumberbatch both brought their own interpretation to Creature’s voice and also touches of humor to the role. Miller drooled and gurgled like a baby would, while Cumberbatch enunciated his words with a lisping choppiness.

             Above all, Frankenstein is a commentary about the cruelty of the world we live in and of human nature. Creature started life with all of the good in his heart and laughed at the grass, the sun, and the feel of the rain on his distorted flesh. Then, reality sank in, and evil penetrated his heart. All Creature wanted was a friend and the possibility of love. When Frankenstein asked Creature what he knew of love, Creature responded with a soul-destroying confession that he felt as if everything was bubbling up inside of him. Frankenstein responded with, “Is that what love feels like?,” which I found befitting, because surely Frankenstein knew no more of love than Creature. The only love Frankenstein came to know was the love of his scientific work, but not of human beings.

Miller and Cumberbatch's transformation took around two and a half hours to recreate each night!, photos courtesy of Simon Annand  
             In the tragic denouement of the story, Creature sought out Frankenstein and demanded that he make a female just like him. Frankenstein agreed, only to create and subsequently destroy the lifeless form before she even took her first breath. Creature then made it his mission to hunt down Frankenstein and rape and kill his wife in revenge. In a departure from the original storyline, the unlikely duo then traveled to the frigid North Pole together, both acting as the other’s purpose in life. When Frankenstein is destroyed, it is assumed that Creature will be destroyed too, and vice versa.

             In this twisted marriage, Frankenstein and his Creature are bound eternally until in death they will part. When people refer to the story of Frankenstein, often times the names of Frankenstein and Creature are muddled up. Indeed, Creature is usually called Frankenstein, but I think this aptly illustrates the attachment that Frankenstein and his Creature share. It as if they are one. Perhaps this is why the alternating of the actors’ roles worked so well in this production. They marvel at each other and hate each other for their sins, but they need each other. Allusions to God were made throughout the production as Frankenstein “played God” by creating life. Creature retorted that he felt bad for Satan, because he too was cast out just like Satan was of heaven. When Creature tasted bile, it was Satan’s bile.

Frankenstein and his Creature marvel at each other and hate each other for their sins, but..., photos courtesy of National Theatre Live
             The play ended on a very powerful scene as a cold and weak Frankenstein and a dominant Creature set off with a sled into a cloud of smoke. In a role reversal, the Master became the Slave. Then they departed, figuratively chained together in mutual loathing, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.

             Despite demands from the public, there is currently no word of a DVD release for Frankenstein. However, due to that same public demand, I am sure this is not the last time the production will grace movie theatre screens. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled!

...they need each other, photos courtesy of National Theatre Live

November 14, 2014

Our Town Was Made for You and Me

David Cromer, who has reworked Our Town for the Almeida Theatre, also stars in the production in the role of stage manager, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner

             The Almeida Theatre has welcomed actor/director David Cromer to work his magic with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The play has been hailed as one of the best-known and most-performed plays in the United States. It was first introduced on Broadway in 1938 and was revolutionary for its time because it disobeyed typical theatre customs. The play is lacking in set and relies on minimal props and natural lighting to tell the story. Wilder broke the fourth wall, which is usually the boundary separating the audience from the action.

Use your imagination! Mrs. Gibbs (Anna Francolini) prepares "food," photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Indeed, these breaks from normal conventions are evident from the very start of Our Town. The audience is subjected to what can barely be called a stage due to its inclusive nature. Members of the audience are actually situated in the same vicinity as the actors. Two tables with four chairs reside on the space to make up the layout. Cromer acts as the stage manager throughout the play, and as he comments directly to us, this is “scenery for those who think they have to have scenery.”

 Audience members are seated in close proximity to the actors and to the "scenery for those who think they have to have scenery," photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Our Town is appealing because it takes the humdrum and twists it into a production that is watchable and simultaneously relatable. As the description of the play on the Almeida Theatre’s website states, “We all grow-up, we fall in love, we have families and we all die. That is our story.” That is everyone’s story and it’s a universal one at that. You would think that watching a play about something we enact everyday would be monotonous, but if anything, it makes you even more invested in the storyline.

David Walmsley during rehearsal, who plays Emily Webb's friend and eventual husband, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner 
             As little Emily Webb (Laura Elsworthy) awkwardly flirts with her neighbor, George Gibbs (David Walmsley), I can feel the collective sigh of the audience as they recollect their own personal experiences with adolescence. George attempts a marriage proposal over milkshakes and we watch on throughout the marriage ceremony. Emily and George have a family together, but Emily dies young giving birth to their second child.

Laura Elsworthy (Emily Webb) pictured with Daniel Kendrick (milkman Howie Newsome) during rehearsal, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Just like the changing of seasons, we lay witness to a speeded-up version of life’s stages. It was life portrayed in two hours and five minutes, including two intervals, to be exact. You need to be cognizant not to take intermissions from life however. Mrs. Webb (Kate Dickie) and Mrs. Gibbs (Anna Francolini) gossip like neighbors do and prepare food for dinner. The cheery milkman Howie Newsome (Daniel Kendrick) does his rounds, pulling along his imaginary (at least to the human eye) cow. Dr. Gibbs scolds his son for focusing more on baseball than helping his mother.

Milkman Howie Newsome delivering milk with his "cow" in tow, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Professor Willard (Joe Bunker) takes the stage, providing us with a lecture and reciting statistics about the town. Cromer hands members of the audience slips of paper with questions on to ask Willard, which was an inclusion representative of the friendliness and involvement of small towns. In the Almeida Theatre that night, we were all a town in our own right.  

Professor Willard (Joe Bunker) tells the audience all about the history of the town, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Mrs. Soames (Annette McLaughlin) is the emotional wedding guest as she gushes about Emily and George's beautiful wedding. Members of the community attend choir practice at the local church. Then, of course there is the town drunk and church organist, Simon Stimson (Christopher Staines). Compared to the utter normality of the rest of the town, his unruly behavior lends itself to perpetuating the rumor that he is becoming evermore unhinged.

Simon Stimson (Christopher Staines) drunkenly leads the local church's choir group which leads to an interesting practice session, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             In succinct summary, that is the story of Our Town, but the message is much greater in the grand scheme of things. After Emily dies, she descends to a resting place in the graveyard with others who she once knew in the town. One such resident is Stimson, who took his own life. At first, she is just as full of life as she was when she was alive, but this quickly takes a sharp turn for the worst. Emily is puzzled about the cold detachment of the residents of the surrounding tombstones. She realizes that she is able to revisit a prior time in her life, so she chooses one of her birthdays at home with her parents.

Wally Webb (Arthur Byrne), another resident of the graveyard, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             At this point, the only semblance of a set throughout the entire performance is revealed behind a curtain, fully equipped with things such as: food, a staircase, a kitchen area, a dining room with a table and chairs, and windows. The actors’ British accents have also morphed into American ones, a very subtle change that implies the sameness of all towns. One is like the other is like the other. The people might change, but the stories stay the same.

Emily helps her mother, Mrs. Webb (Kate Dickie), with food preparation, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             With increasing panic, Emily notices that her parents and her younger self hardly look at one another during this otherworldly experience. She exclaims, “That's all human beings are! Just blind people.” Stimson seconds this thought from the grave, claiming that people live in a “cloud of ignorance and blindness.” Perhaps most profound, however, is when Emily poses the question, “Do people realize life as they live it?” Cromer comes in at this point and quips, “Some; saints and poets do.” The answer is most likely a realistic no, especially in London, where everyone seems to be in some sort of a hurry.

Rebecca Gibbs (Jessica Lester) and her brother George enjoy simple pleasures, such as stargazing, in the town, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             I left the theatre concerned for my own mortality, having just viewed the final scene where Emily comes to terms with her death and adopts a stoic stance to the outside world. Even as her widowed husband visits her at her grave, she joins the others in miniscule talk of things such as the weather.

Mrs. Soames (Annette McLaughlin) during rehearsal, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             The nature of life is that of a never-ending vicious cycle, much like the washing cycle of a load of laundry that spins and spins until it eventually must cease out of domestic exhaustion. When referring to Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs, Cromer says, half in jest and half in truth, "They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house — and never a nervous breakdown." Unlike human beings, plays and the characters in them are eternal. Well, let’s all hope we keep pleasure in our lives to a maximum while keeping nervous breakdowns to a minimum.

             Catch Our Town at the Almeida Theatre before it ends its run on November 29th. Purchase tickets (while you still can!) here  

That's all folks! As the stage manager, Cromer (pictured here during rehearsal) provides a running commentary throughout the play, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner