The Glass Menagerie
Duke of York's Theatre, London
By Tennessee Williams
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
John Tiffany's direction and Nico Muhly's compositions help mine new depths in this ace production of Williams' greatest play.
It originated at the American Repertory Theatre in Harvard, moved to Broadway (where it was garlanded with Tony nominations), then last summer to the Edinburgh Festival and finally to London. It also marks the West End debut of the great Cherry Jones, a revered name on Broadway but (sadly) best known here as the President in Homeland. London can now see why she matters.
Bob Crowley's design is spare, no walls but a lopsided fire escape which climbs to infinity giving the sense of the apartment as a refuge, floating above a cruel world. Nico Muhly's limpid underscoring and Natasha Katz's sensitive lighting add greatly to the ethereal atmosphere.
Williams, in a production note, made it explicit that this is a "memory play" and memories are of course notoriously selective. His argument was that truth or life can, in essence, only be represented on stage through transformation. This is Tiffany's starting point and with his usual penchant for gloriously fluid movement, he uses mime and illusion, sparingly but effectively, to fashion a spellbindingly dreamlike production. It is nonetheless rooted in the cold reality of 1930s St Louis.
Often presented as a lioness, Jones here brings a tenderness to the Southern matriarch Amanda which is quite captivating. Her simple faith in her children's natural endowments is truly touching as is her horror for Laura of a future life as a pitied and barely tolerated spinster. Life requires Spartan endurance she warns her two drifter offspring constantly, harking back to her halcyon youth when she was blessed with money and the allure to entertain many "gentlemen callers" of an evening. Her husband-baiting has a very serious purpose however in a society where there was no safety net, especially for single women.
She's masterful in slipping from girlish vitality to hardnosed pragmatism. When they invite Tom's work colleague round for dinner, her Southern Belle performance (she never stops talking), which she forces Laura to join in with, is both tantalising and desperate in equal measure. She wants Laura to "cultivate vivacity", a tall order considering the girl is crippled by shyness because of slight physical disability.
As the single Brit joining the American cast, Kate O'Flynn is utterly beguiling as the fragile Laura and brings a vivid freshness to the role. Her transformation from mouse-like child to sharp and intelligent young woman when she temporarily opens up to the Gentleman Caller (Brian J Smith, who deftly manages to make the role both ordinary and romantic at the same time) is all the more heartbreaking because we then have to witness her slow retreat back into that shell after her dream has been dashed.
Michael Esper too brings a raffishness to Tom, the poet stuck in a dead end job to support his mother and sister and, crucially, he doesn't soft-peddle Tom's selfish disregard.
This quartet present such fully rounded portrayals of these great characters that it's as if you're seeing the play for the first time. They will all need to make some room on their mantelpieces. There will be awards.