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James Hanson
Upper Sixth
Moberly's House

Third Form Play 2011: Our Town

Third Form Play 2011: Our Town

The arrival of the first specifically Third Form play for many years might garner fears that the director would choose to play down to both his audience and his cast. Thankfully, the director in question was Rob Morris (taking his final directorial bow before departing for China this summer) to whom the concept of not trusting completely the intelligence of his audience has never occurred. This was a hugely ambitious choice of play: the minimalist set; heavy use of mime (as Wilder first intended) and use of a fourth-wall breaking narrator all contributed to the creation of some really quite advanced theatre.

Yet I am delighted to report that every single challenge presented to this young company was risen to with relish. Firstly, the simple demands of the play’s style were maturely handled with the miming of props of a commendable standard (pretending to stroke a horse and dig a grave acted particularly well), even if on the odd occasion mistakes were made (for example, when the aforementioned horse appeared to be walked through). The brilliantly simplistic set presented another challenge — a lack of scene changes. Whilst from an audience perspective this is a delight as we are presented with a fast-moving piece of action, I do understand that for a relatively junior cast it can be challenging to know exactly when to go on if there are no large scene changes to denote it, yet again there appeared to be no problem here. Projection, too, was of a ubiquitously high standard — a particular feat considering the majority of this cast will have come through the microphone and chorus culture of the Pre where basic standards of clarity and natural volume are often foregone. Finally, the collective cast dealt well with the challenges of the American accent. Whilst it would be wrong to say that all were perfect, most were of an impressively advanced standard, and the overall effect created was very much one of New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th century.

Individually, there were several performances of note. Florence Woolley’s superb accent and delightful mix of innocent charm and human complexity displayed an ability to explore the different levels of a character that defied her age. Her romantic interest in the play, Toby Bernard, also managed to convey the quirks of his character well with his nervous good will winning the affection of the audience. Elsewhere, both Jemima Scrase and Liz Streatfeild-James showed a poise and subtlety that is often lacked aged 13 or 14, their motherly characters portrayed believably and their accents among the best in the entire production. Indeed, the pair also appeared to revel in each other’s stage presence, with one of the nicest scenes occurring when their respective characters were having what appeared to be a mother’s meeting together in the first act, during which the nuances of their roles were allowed to be exposed. Daniel Lewis and Will Slatton both narrated the play well as the Stage Managers, their accents again were pulled off and both displayed a fine amount of stage presence. However, perhaps both actors could have revelled a little more in their ability to break the fourth wall. Being harsh, at times it seemed as if they were reluctant to properly interact with the audience, and so preferred to look over their heads and ignore their appreciative laughter. Jo Hargan had more than a touch of the Bill Nighy about him — a delightful stage style that I’m sure will be cultivated over the coming years. His conducting of an imaginary choir was a particular treat, and one that exemplified Wilder’s theory that an audience can gain more by being asked to imagine something than simply being presented with it. Finally, Georgia Young was supremely confident on the stage, her loud and brash delivery played perfectly (even if the occasional forgotten line and infuriating tendency to peer through the curtain suggested an actress with a great deal of talent, but rather less professionalism), whilst there were stellar contributions from James Hughesdon as the upstanding Dr Gibbs, Joel Barber as the equally straight-laced Mr Webb and fine performances from George Lambert, Jemima Cook, Harry Mellor and Nathan Jay.

As for the technical aspects of the play, again the choices of the director were wise and well judged. The use of the sinister full moon in the background created the necessary element of intrigue, which contrasted perfectly with the otherwise prim and pristine set. Meanwhile, the spirit of Thornton Wilder was very much done justice by the largely bare set, with only a pair of rose-laced trellises serving as embellishment.

In conclusion, this was an evening of superb dramatic integrity, featuring fine performances, detailed direction and a challenging and exciting plot line, but also a hugely encouraging evening for Clifton drama. For as Rob Morris departs the College loses a titan of its theatrical history. His plays over the years have provided Clifton casts and audiences with a standard of material far beyond that normally attempted by a school with an otherwise conservative and populist tendency as far as drama is concerned. In this regard, Our Town was a fitting way to depart, carrying the hallmark of high concept, well acted and slickly produced polish of Morris. On top of this, it showcased the immense potential to be found in the current Third Form … potential that hopefully will not be quashed by an over-exposure to orchestras and dance routines, but instead nurtured with challenging material. Whether that occurs is by the by, this in itself was a fine evening of dramatic entertainment with an evocative plot and equally evocative direction. It included a plethora of encouragingly mature performances, with Hargan, Scrase, Streatfeild-James, Woolley and Young the most exciting among them. The Third Form play of 2011 was a roaring success, and hopefully will serve as a potent reminder of what Clifton drama should always strive to be.

23 May 2011

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