EFR - Reviews of A Modern Town

A Modern Town

Sun 19th – Mon 27th August 2012

reviews

Rachel Cunliffe

at 21:35 on 19th Aug 2012

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‘A Modern Town’ is a play with a message, a message about capitalism, greed, and, as the title suggests, the perils of modernity. Joe Webber (played by Jamie Hannon), the owner of the only supermarket in the run-down Newton Basset, is offered the chance to rejuvenate both his business and his beloved town, with the help of three sleek and persuasive investors. You can imagine what happens next.

Predictable though the plot may be, the production of this well-known story (think an updated version of Dürrenmatt’s ‘The Visit’) has some fresh and original elements. The scene changes are accompanied by a chorus of folk music, sometimes jolly and upbeat, sometimes mournful and haunting, which adds an atmosphere of humanity to the play. The changes themselves are incredibly slick and well-choreographed, so the show flows nicely despite the jumps in time. The costumes have also been carefully thought out: a transition of scruffy colour to sinister monochrome, which works simply but beautifully.

The cast have clearly put a lot of work into this, and the enthusiasm is palpable. Acting, however, is mixed. It does not help that many of the characters, particularly the townsfolk of Newton Basset, are written as stereotypes, speaking stilted, clichéd lines. Roger Parkins’ John, the town’s farmer, is an ‘Archers’ caricature, while Robyn Keynes’ Margaret, the supermarket cashier, comes across and flat and one-dimensional. While this may be an attempt to mark the country/city divide, the result is at times dull and monotonous. Accents are also occasionally problematic, slipping at random moments. James Ivens, however, does an excellent job as Thompson, the lead investor, and Susan Hay’s portrayal of Webber’s indignant yet sympathetic girlfriend is deeply moving to watch. On the whole, the scenes between the hapless Webber and the investors are the strongest, and the post-apocalyptic stylised dance routine inserted a quarter of the way in, while unexpected, works well.

Enthusiasm and energy, however, are not enough to elevate this production above the mediocrity of the plot. The obvious direction in which the play was headed means that it inevitably drags towards the end, revived only by the aforementioned scene changes. The play wants to force the audience to think about the consequences of capitalism, asking what it means to be a ‘modern town’, but this just isn’t subtle enough to be effective. All in all, a good attempt, but not quite there.

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Imogen O'Sullivan

at 21:53 on 19th Aug 2012

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Conveniently, the opening tableau of a stage full of actors singing in harmony is the perfect symbol of the united community that breathes a soul into this otherwise unexceptional script. Whilst introduced to a town physically crumbling but built on a strong social bedrock of co-dependency and co-operation, the audience is forced to consider how, through becoming a thoroughly ‘modern town’, it finds a way to deteriorate and decay.

This monolithic world-view of society as a community is reflected by the well-polished synchronicity of the ensemble. Live music is created by the cast, well co-ordinated and harmonised, and covers slick scene transitions that maintain the impressive pace, effectively mirroring the town’s rapid slide into modernity. Roger Parkins’ skill on the accordion also serves to emphasise the dichotomy between rural and urban - country values and capitalist values - that adds political bite to this piece. A simple and versatile set allows for scene and costume changes to occur swiftly and efficiently, aided and abetted by subtle lighting shifts.

The ensemble is lightning fast on line pick-ups and scene changes – characteristic of their total competence throughout. Special mention deserves to be given for the menagerie of regional accents, the vast majority of which are surprisingly solid and convincing. Susan Lay and James Ivens displayed particular flair as multi-roling character actors; clear, funny and natural, regardless of the swift changes. However, the heart of the fictional town of Newton Basset is without a doubt the avuncular farmer, John (Roger Parkins), who incidentally plays his role beautifully, developing from the understated anxiety slowly creeping its way across his brow to the tragic serenity of a man who’s lost everything. Whilst the transparent script allows the audience to spot the tragedy coming a country mile away, it is testament to the actors that this makes the ending no less tragic. Darren Gosling as Antoine manages to imbue his social-climbing, alcoholic town councillor with a sympathetic humanity, committed even down to his gait, but the real tragedy is played out in the face of Robyn Keynes as Margaret. The only resident of Newton Basset astute enough to predict the casualties of this modernisation suffers all the same – a damning indictment of the class system still warring in a boom and bust recession.

The political conflict between community and capitalism is strikingly relevant, if a bit of an unimaginative parallel, but a universally strong cast still achieve a real sense of shock and sorrow when the tragic, and alarmingly possible, dystopia of privatisation is finally revealed. The final tableau splits the stage into town and country, begging the somewhat reductive question of whether there is a place for community, tradition and a man who pronounces ‘gourmet’ with the ‘t’, in a corporate future of profit and gain. The most terrifying truth is how persuasive the slick ‘investors’ are in arguing that, in every age, some people have to suffer in order for progress to be made.

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