Though little known in Britain, Almost, Maine by John Cariani is frequently performed in the USA and has been widely translated. It’s easy to see why this play has been so popular. Presented as a series of duologues, it is a simple and reproducible form for schools and companies to tackle. The play depicts couples at various stages of their romantic relationships – beginning, middle and end. We see them in the state of falling in, or out of love, but never quite in love. The play cleverly reveals the perpetual human state of ‘almost’. Our glass of romance is always half-full or half-empty – it’s never just a glass. Humans are defined by their lack and this play captures that perfectly.
The performances are all excellent. The actors convincingly take on more than one role and the ensemble work hard together and understand the world they inhabit. It is a unique world they are presenting. Almost (an imaginary place in Maine) is a town that ‘doesn’t quite exist’ – a mythical place, almost ethereal; just like love itself. There are surreal moments in the play that reflect this: shoes fall from the sky; sacks of love are returned and people cannot stop falling to the floor when they fall in love. This was particularly enjoyable to watch. It is rare to see a writer boldly consider how to physicalise the feeling of love – as if you’ve lost your balance; you ‘fallin love’.
Director Simon Evans captures the unique atmosphere of the town of Almost successfully. Characters who weren’t in the duologue are the ones who then change the scenes. This choice is a clever one – coming together in the moments between scenes gives us a sense of the whole town as an integrated community.
What we do know about Almost is that it is very cold, snowy and one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. Amy Jane Cook’s simple design creates a strong sense of this place – the neutral tones of the costumes, smell of the Christmas trees stacked at the back and use of wooden crates as furniture combine to provide a Winter-Wonderland feel (and not the Hyde Park kind). Kiaran’s Kesby’s lighting design (a magical ceiling of bulbs representing the starry sky) is complimented well by Ed Lewis’ evocative sound design.
I thought the whole design could have contributed more to reflect the sense that these short moments occur at the same time. In the notes to the play, Cariani writes that each scene is happening as the clock strikes nine and each plot ‘climaxes with some sort of ‘magical moment” combined with the Northern Lights. This wasn’t totally clear and the magic of the Northern Lights could have been a little more strongly evoked.
I found the text itself a little frustrating. The short scenes are vignettes that lack emotional and intellectual depth. The constant duologues become a little repetitive, particularly as this production has chosen (wisely, I think) not to have an interval. Just as you start to invest in a story, you are denied its completion. The duologue form reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the recent excellent production at the Almeida. However, unlike Our Town, there is no powerful final reveal in Almost, Maine and little in the way of real depth to this play either.
It is always a joy to see anything at the Park Theatre (which is swiftly becoming my favourite in London) and Almost Maine was no exception to the rule. Like any good romcom, it really did make me laugh and it reminded me of an American Love Actually. It’s a heartwarming way to spend an evening and the snow, stars, Christmas trees and wintry atmosphere make it almost the perfect Christmas show. But only, almost.