I was excited to see Black Swan Theatre’s production of Our Town partly because a version is coming to London’s Open Air Theatre this summer, and partly because I wanted to see an Australian take on Thornton Wilder’s perpetualised tragicomedy – and the community involvement with actual doctors, priests and editors taking the equivalent roles in the play is a neat twist.

A promising start with professional actor Ian Michael segueing neatly from the respect to the First Australians into the opening speech as stage manager and narrator of Our Town.  All three principal roles are played by actors of aboriginal origin, but that made me think how much better the production could be if it were even further ‘Australianised’.  There’s no attempt at American accents, everyone sounds Aussie so how interesting would the story become if it were also set in a West Australian coastal town in 1901?

The courtyard setting is lovely, the starlight and the breeze adding to the atmosphere, but director Clare Watson’s adherence to the original staging and mimed props serves also to underline the static nature of Our Town, and maybe modern audiences need more than the bare words and bare stage to keep involved.  There were several gaps in the seating after the interval.

The community ensemble is generally excellent – the local amateur or semi-professional actors deliver their parts with enthusiasm and accuracy, special honours to Robert Jackson as the cycling milkman, a splendid cameo.

But there are two issues – the first is that Our Town is a deliberately plain and dull play set on the New England coast, about plain and dull people at a plain and dull time in history.  People are born, marry and die, one of them comes briefly back to life to revisit a day in their personal timeline – so basically it’s Carousel with all the fun sucked out of it.

There was a momentary hint that Black Swan might have been on to something with a theme of inclusion – there’s reference to ancestors, the aboriginal cast members, and Thornton Wilder was himself a gay man in a heterosexual milieu – but whatever spark there was sputtered and died when the professionals really didn’t outclass the community company, Abbie-Lee Lewis particularly unengaging as the idealistic Emily Webb.

The stories are punctuated by a cappella singing from Curtin University’s fantastic Rhythmos choir, and their every contribution was a delight.

There are some technical annoyances, though – the headphones worn by all the audience are effective in screening out the nearby cacophony of Northbridge on a Saturday night, but the sound design doesn’t soar much beyond a bit of birdsong and some train whistles, so is a wasted opportunity.  Also the pre-set voiceover to wear the damn things is half an hour of the same announcement on a loop and is beyond irritating.  Finally, the black vinyl covering the earpieces is cracked and peeling and comes off on your ears. 

On the bus home some kind soul asked if I had a terrible skin disease.