Friday 3 February 2017

Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams' most overtly autobiographical play is probably my favourite, which is just as well as it's also the one I've seen most often - John Tiffany's production of The Glass Menagerie is my fourth, and comes to London after acclaimed runs in New York and Edinburgh. Tom (Michael Esper) is the narrator, unreliable by his own admission, of a memory from his youth in St Louis living with his mother and sister, his father having long sonce absconded. His sister Laura (Kate O'Flynn) has a slight limp, and in her teens was ill with pleurisy for a long time, and both have been magnified in her mind - she became shy to the point that it's now a crippling mental illness. At the play's opening, their mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) discovers that Laura has been lying about going to a typing course for the last few weeks - she had a panic attack after a couple of days and dropped out.

The hope was that Laura would learn a skill and be able to support herself, but with that failing Amanda goes full-throttle into Plan B: Finding a man who can marry and support her daughter.

A couple of years ago Headlong's Glass Menagerie took the play out of its historical context but Tiffany keeps it firmly a period piece - but one, as Tom's opening narration warns us, that's mistily remembered and dreamlike. The Wingfields' house floats, in Bob Crowley's design, in hexagonal wooden islands on a starry lake from which a neon moon sometimes pops out, Nico Muhly provides ethereal music that underscores much of the action, and Tom populates his memory of his home by pulling Laura out of the sofa, much like the stage magician he describes in a later drunken monologue. And this being a John Tiffany production, there's movement choreographed by Steven Hoggett to show the characters being pulled around the dream world.

This bubble existence is a suitable setting for the kind of 1930s America Williams describes, in which still dealing with the Depression has kept the country from paying attention yet to the much bigger problems rising elsewhere in the world. The dreamlike feel helps the comic moments sit naturally among the prevailing desperation; as well as making a new kind of sense of the second act, in which Laura does get a Gentleman Caller, who turns out to be her big high school crush Jim (Sense8's Brian J. Smith, sadly fully-clothed.) The seemingly lovely Jim ends up leading Laura on with potentially tragic consequences for her, and the fact that he seems to have stepped into a dream explains how the rather goofy boy gets carried away into a flirtation with the damaged girl - when he remembers he has a fiancée it has the feel of him waking up.

Tiffany doesn't look much into the subtext of whether Tom's nightly trips to the movies are hookups with other men, although when he first brings Jim to the house the two men are unusually tactile - conjuring thoughts of an alternate version of the play where it's Tom, not the unseen Betty, whom Jim prefers to Laura. This happens on the fire escape and in one criticism I do have, the set isn't an entirely great fit for the Duke of York's stage, and scenes that take place here are pretty hard to see if, like me, you're sitting on the right side of a row.

But overall this is one of the best productions of the play I've seen - O'Flynn is moving, while Cherry Jones, the production's big draw as a Broadway star making her West End debut, gives a new slant to Amanda: Often played as a little bit unhinged herself, here the former Southern belle's youth as the object of many men's affection has left her self-involved but not unaware of her surroundings; she's very businesslike in the pursuit of her daughter's future security but sabotages herself with her desire to be the centre of attention. It's a performance that lives up to the hype but one in a production where all four of the characters get equal chance to shine, and one in which the power of Williams' play is treated respectfully but also freshly illuminated.

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is booking until the 29th of April at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: John Persson.

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