Maskers Theatre Company Maskers Studio, Shirley, Southampton Anne Waggott 29 January 2024
There are some themes in life that are universal, transcending all creeds, cultures, genders, or ethnicities… themes such as love: seeking love, finding love, falling in love, losing love… It is this central topic of love which is at the heart of John Cariani’s short American play, Almost, Maine.
It’s a strange little play – quirky, abstract and surreal – as it’s constructed from nine small 10-minute vignettes within the overall play, a play about the loves and relationships of a small town’s citizens and visitors, against the backdrop of the ethereal Northern Lights. Set in the fictional ‘almost town’ of Almost, in Maine, USA, so far north that it’s almost in Canada, the characters only appear in their specific scene, although they may also be mentioned in others, reflecting the idea that “everyone knows everyone in a small town”, almost living in each other’s pockets.
Although written 20 years ago, this is the first time that I’ve come across Almost, Maine. Apparently its one of the most regularly performed plays in North American schools – and I can see why. With such short standalone plays within the overall narrative, there are ample opportunities for new or inexperienced actors to earn their acting chops and learn their craft. The same could be said for Am Dram companies – however, Maskers have used a combined force of experienced character actors who are longstanding members alongside the more recent additions to the Maskers Theatre Company.
Director David Jobson, in his directorial debut, has overseen a production with a good pace, where the actors are sound in their dialogue and characterisations (although some of the interactions seem more awkward than the script suggests they should be), the absurd situations are performed literally, and the simple set is used to good effect. However, it seemed strange to have a play set in an American town with American terminology, but with the only American accent heard from a member of the audience.
With actors taking on more than one role each, this is a united ensemble production of solid and engaging comical performances; it seems churlish to highlight one over another, and yet Rob Iliffe’s portrayal of Steve was the most compelling and authentic characterisation amongst some otherwise very eccentric personalities.
Simon White’s lighting design has created a visually beautiful and most effective aurora borealis against a starlit backdrop, placed behind a delightfully painted forest, and the costumes reinforce the idea of a cold northern exposure.
The magic of theatre and the Arts is that it’s subjective – the success and enjoyment of any production is as much due to the personal preferences of an audience as it is the skill and talent of the actors and production team. To be honest, this play isn’t my cup of tea, even though I appreciate the commitment and passion of the cast and crew and there were elements that I did enjoy, but if you like absurdist plays, then this may be right up your street, and it does suit the intimate venue of Maskers Studio.
Almost, Maine runs until Saturday 4 February (7:30pm each evening), tickets available online.