Landing in the West End via Broadway and a spell at the Edinburgh Festival, The Glass Menagerie is a tour de force of a play that put Tennessee Williams’ name on the map. We are introduced to our surroundings by Tom Wingfield (Michael Esper) who frames the action as a ‘memory play’, that’s to say the audience is always acutely aware that we are taken back to the past by a character who, from the future, still holds contempt and misgivings for who and what he has left behind.
We find ourselves in the living room of a St Louis apartment in the late 1930s, a fire escape curling up to the heavens and a small balcony the only sense of respite. It is unassuming and dour, everything that Amanda Wingfield is not. In her West End début, Cherry Jones is the perfect embodiment of the role. Born in the late 50s in Tennessee herself, she remembers the type of ladies on whom Williams based the character. Whether from her own personal life or nuanced interpretation, her Amanda is both overbearing and ostentatious while making her plight and personal struggles keenly felt. For me, she will always be this character and it was a masterful performance, Southern accent included.
Tom’s sister Laura unfurls herself from the sofa as if being pulled from the depths of his memory. As the ‘crippled’ sister whose future happiness depends on the prospect of a gentleman caller to eventually marry and care for her, Kate O’Flynn gives a nuanced and delicate performance. Her body language is suffocating and self-deprecating even when she has no lines, and her development as a character is both beautiful and heart-breaking to watch. She is delicate like her singular unicorn in the titular glass menagerie but also broken from inside; her shuffling gait and laboured lines as if respite would only come from the ground below her feet consuming her as the sofa does.
There is no weak performance in this 4-character play not least the second act in which the fabled gentleman caller (Brian J Smith) becomes an actual reality, and he and Laura’s interaction holds our attention. The subtlest of movement, the slightest change in intonation draws the audience in and charts Laura slowly but surely being drawn out of her shell. As he remembers her from high school (she earlier declaring he was likely the only man she ever loved), their relationship quickly progresses and their kiss drew audible intakes of breath from the audience. How fast it all falls apart again only serves to further demonstrate how invested the family are in an external force to alter their situation, how abandoned and desolate they feel, how left behind the women are.
Having studied the play at school, one notable absence in this production comparative to the original is the use of a screen to project imagery and text to enhance the action of the play. This set up always felt jarring with the perceived naturalistic style of the play, however in its place director John Tiffany has included his signature focus on choreography. At first perhaps unexpected, we become comfortable with the lack of props, imaginary meals, lyrical interpretation of the simplest actions and the consideration of space and movement between the characters. The use of lighting and twinkling fairy lights to surround the island-esque space of the apartment when Laura surveys her glass animals serves both to isolate the family and bring them together as a unit. Their wishing on the moon shows a sense of wistful hopefulness and a despair that is shared by all of them.
As Tom opens the play, he likens himself to a stage magician who gives us the “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”, and perhaps that’s really what any theatre production is. But this one in particular, is one that is worth getting lost in to allow us to explore some of our own inner truths.
The Glass Menagerie at Duke of York’s Theatre until 29th April 2017. For more information please visit the website.