Friday, 10 February 2017

The Glass Menagerie

A revival of Tennessee Williams’ most autobiographical play will break your heart for all the right reasons

Written by Georgina Brown

The director John Tiffany demonstrated his magic touch long before his wizard production of Harry Potter and the cursed child with the visceral Black Watch, which conjured what it meant to belong to that famous regiment, and once, a winsome, wistful Dublin-set musical rom-com. All brand-new pieces of writing, which he staged with tremendous physicality and theatricality.

His latest project, a revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1945 classic The Glass Menagerie, requires more delicate handling. Which it gets, with quietly spellbinding results, from the first moment when a girl in a flowery frock emerges from between the folds of the settee, magically conjured by the narrator, Tom, her brother, from the recesses of his mind. Her forceful mother, Amanda appears from behind a screen like a magician’s assistant. Ghosts they may be, but there is no doubting their flesh and blood reality as Amanda clucks at her daughter to ‘stay fresh and pretty’ for any possible passing suitor. Georgina-Brown-colour-176

As if. Kate O’Flynn’s Laura seems to shrink visibly, hardly daring to breathe, horribly aware of her mother’s disappointment in her and her morbid fear that Laura will become an old maid.

This is Williams’ most nakedly autobiographical play. The pathologically shy and fragile Laura with a clubfoot and a passion for tending to her collection of tiny glass animals – here just the one unicorn – is a portrait of his beloved sister Rose, who finished up lobotomised in an asylum; he brings his mother to suffocating life in Cherry Jones’ indomitable Amanda Wingfield, the wilted southern belle anxious to realise her own thwarted dreams through her children.

Tom – played by Michael Esper in this production – is a self-portrait: bunking off from his hated job in a shoe-factory to go to the movies, longing to be a writer and to get away from his smothering mother. Fantasists, all of them, locked in worlds of their own, all hurting and conscious of one another’s pain and yet incapable of providing any comfort.

Tiffany looks through this Glass darkly, staging it against a wall of darkness on three hexagonal platforms floating on a pool of black oil. Bob Crowley’s set has a fire escape zigzag impossibly into the sky like a bolt of lightning, but escape is an illusion for these characters, trapped in poverty in a windowless St Louis apartment.

Though it becomes a tantalising possibility in the almost unbearably poignant scene between Laura and ‘The Gentleman Caller’.

A sweet, sensitive Brian J Smith brings a genuine sense that he has always held a torch for the girl he fondly remembers from school and, had he not become engaged to another, things might have been very different. A dream shatters, as surely as laura’s little glass unicorn. Devastating.

Until 29 April at Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2: 0844-871 7623, 

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