Review: The Glass Menagerie

I first encountered Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play The Glass Menagerie when I was studying English and American literature at university, and I remember being haunted by it for days. Now, a few years later, I had the chance to see John Tiffany’s Olivier-Award-nominated production of it at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End, and it was just as powerful and moving as I remembered.

Tiffany, probably best known as the director of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and his award-winning team masterfully capture the essence of Williams’ career-launching masterpiece and bring it to life in a fresh, unique way.

When the lights in the beautiful Victorian auditorium go out, a soft, melancholy piano tune is all you can hear. Then the narrator and protagonist Tom Wingfield (Michael Esper), a young aspiring poet feeling trapped in his life, is revealed. He introduces the audience to what they are about to see: a play based on his memories of his mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) and his sister Laura (Kate O’Flynn), and the fateful night they had a gentleman-caller, Tom’s friend Jim (Brian J. Smith), over for dinner.

After this, he steps back in time, right into the empty flat and the life he has left behind, and pulls his sister out of the sofa in one gentle, swift movement. This is the most unusual and perfect stage entrance I’ve ever seen, immediately establishing important traits of Laura’s character – her dependency, her insecurity and her tendency to hide and keep to herself, all caused by her limp. Then Amanda, their eccentric and theatrical mother, enters the stage, and the tragedy unfolds.

Tom is a dreamer with a tender heart, torn between doing what’s best for him and what’s best for his family, and Esper’s flawless performance captures the whole spectrum of this struggle, from childlike optimism and hope to frustration, even anger and self-loathing.

Cherry Jones excels as the self-confident and nostalgic mother, annoying her children with tales from her glorious youth and her attempts to get Laura a husband. She is radiant and charismatic, portraying Amanda as a stubborn, loving woman willing to do whatever it takes to save her family, and her joy at finding out that Tom has invited one of his friends at work over for dinner is as convincing as her despair when the dinner doesn’t turn out the way she hoped.

Kate O’Flynn’s Laura is clever and compassionate. Her limp is quite subtle, emphasising that Laura’s real issue isn’t the leg but her low self-esteem. It’s fascinating to watch her get lost in her own little world inhabited by her collection of glass animals – her glass menagerie – whenever she feels sad or troubled, and it is delightful to see her slowly open up to Jim, who makes her laugh and, for a moment, see that she is just as special as her favourite glass piece, the unicorn. O’Flynn and Smith both deliver moving performances, and their chemistry is wonderful.

Bob Crowly’s set and costume design recreate 1930s St Louis, where the action takes place. The modest flat – coloured in stale brownish tones – is a hexagonal space in the centre of the stage enclosed by a dark, mirror-like surface reflecting the shapes of the actors when they are standing at the edge, gazing out through invisible windows. This makes the flat appear like an island, set apart and cut off from the world outside, or a ship just about to sink, and it is a brilliant visual metaphor for the Wingfield family.

The lighting (Natasha Katz) takes on an equally symbolic, almost storytelling role. In several scenes, Tom reflects on what happened while watching Amanda and Laura from outside of the scene, as if they were forever out of reach. To emphasise this, Tom is set apart by a cold, blueish-white light in these scenes, while everything else is bathed in warm, soft tones. Only when he is a part of the story, he is included in the overall colour scheme.

Soft, jazzy piano melodies (Nico Muhly) underscore most of the play, while sound effects (Paul Arditti) are used sparsely. Sometimes, you can hear rain splashing down outside the apartment or someone using a typewriter, but often, there is a strange absence of sounds – for example, there are no plates and cutlery, so when the family is eating, they use pantomime to show it. The missing everyday noises create the illusion that we are really watching a memory or a dream.

Steven Hoggett’s movement design is absolutely stunning. When Tom first transforms from narrator into protagonist, he takes a deep breath and then walks, almost dances, with his eyes to the audience back into the flat, as if he is crossing into another world, and this stepping in and out of the action is repeated several times. Even if the actors have no props to use – as with the missing cutlery – each movement is precise and effective, avoiding the comic effect pantomime usually has.

Carried by outstanding performances and brilliant storytelling, The Glass Menagerie is a remarkable piece of theatre. Every aspect of the production fits together flawlessly, creating a tender, heart-breaking but also funny experience that stays with you much longer than the tube-ride home.

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