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FringeReview UK 2017

The Glass Menagerie

Sonia Friedman Productions and Colin Callender 1001 Nights Productions, Rupert Gavin, Just for Laughs Theatricals, Bruno Wang Productions Richard Winkler, Brian Zeilinger, originally produced by American Repertory Theater

Genre: Drama, International, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Duke of York's Theatre, London


Low Down

The Duke of York’s hosts this gleaming production of The Glass Menagerie originally produced by the American Repertory Theater, directed by John Tiffany. Bob Crowley’s molecular vision of what memory might look like is matched in Natasha Katz’s lighting, sound by Paul Arditti.


Just as a more interventionist version gets underway Stateside, the Duke of York’s hosts this gleaming production of The Glass Menagerie originally produced by the American Repertory Theater, directed by John Tiffany.


Marooned on locked hexagonal islands topping a mirrored black lake, at times this winks with the stars memorialist Tom’s sister Laura sees before clouds get in her eyes, as Natasha Katz’s lighting insinuates. One stairwell helixes up like waste DNA. sound by Paul Arditti focuses on period songs, as it should, but resonates a haunting too.


If this is designer Bob Crowley’s molecular vision of what memory might look like, it’s no wonder Tom invokes his 1937 events through it. That Tom’s only talking from 1944; it seems an irrevocable generation back. For Williams personally it was.


To underline that the flimsy naturalist trappings include an armchair through which Tom suddenly pulls Laura. It’s organic, fluid, thrillingly fallible. For a crucial stretch of time Tom’s not even witness to what happens. He traces it through the set’s bloodstream. Thomas Wolfe’s contemporaneous novel takes its title from Milton’s Lycidas: ‘Look Homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth’. It’s a major theme of 1930s American writing and this play’s steeped in poetry, ‘the fiery braille’ of Laura’s articulation, the vividly alienated recall.


If Tom’s striving to escape his Depression warehouse serfdom to turn writer (as Williams and Miller did), the cost of such seriousness is death, as Peter Porter once put it. His mother Amanda and Laura are wholly dependant: the father’s not only departed but by example left Tom a challenge to follow him, supertramping the world.


But what, Amanda asks, will happen to Laura, the withdrawn, gentle sister whose slight limp provides the crutch she uses to retreat from any secretarial course, into her glass menagerie of animals and a memory of a high school god who barely noticed her. Kate O’Flynn swallows back her voice, almost strangulates her sensibility, yet tenderly covers the drunk Tom on one of his incessant ‘movie’ nights, a code for casual sex as much as escapism. O’Flynn shudders into life betraying a flicker that can burst or snuff.


Faded southern belle Amanda’s children might be ‘precious’ to her though it’s a close-run rhetoric between her smothering anxiety and chop-fallen grandeur, particularly enumerating the finer men she could have chosen; all turned millionaires. She’s reduced to cold-calling madams on sales commissions, injecting enough dignity in manner to underline how soiled she thinks she is. Cherry Jones has this in her bloodstream, so resisted the role. Naturally she makes you shudder as she wrests the typewriter from Tom, as if she knows this will liberate him. She’s even censored his reading, stealing his library D H Lawrence to back whence it came. Michael Esper’s outburst and remorse – dragged from him by Laura – is one of the highlights, Jones and Esper exploding in a mother and son’s recognition of severance. It feels even then as if something irrevocable’s happened.


At first, Tom ‘s capitulated to Amanda’s importuning he bring back a ‘gentleman caller’ such as she enjoyed, for Laura. Jones bustles refusals to acknowledge Laura’s true condition, imposing this bizarre regimen on the household – appearing spectacularly in an ancient dress. Everything in Jones exudes aspirational delusions born of terror, edging panic in the way she heightens pitch.


The wonder is the Gentleman Caller O’Connor isn’t simply the aspiration-gone-wrong his public speaking course proclaims, though at a crucial point he pulls this out and smartly realises he’s addressed Laura as a public meeting. Once alone, recognition and the terracing down of shyness on both works in this offering of totems and mementos, O’Flynn particularly broadening her voice just enough to register blossoming, a firmness only ever shown to Tom. Brian J Smith sways from awkward gambits to wonder. You realise how behind initial bluff the disappointed high-achiever owns a thwarted sensibility Williams allows youthful few male characters, miraculous recognition of Laura as she is. After he’s too boldly launched his inferiority complex sermon, he surprisingly manages to make something of it. Their emotional and physical dance is heart-stopping, even to the moment glass and flesh meet in all its ramifications. There’s a catch though.


Denouements and unravelments leave open too the silence Tom observes about his family. Smith’s awkwardness – the way he trails clues by wishing Laura his sister, again leave you wondering what codes Williams ripples here, but taking Smith’s reading at face value works because his face realizes everything essential to self-realisation. You believe he’s not dallying.


Williams first masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie’s also his tenderest, most tremulous of hope, where something could go right – as one earlier screenwriting version suggests. What we have is Williams’ fresh map of hopeless chances freshly realized, in a revival whose pitch is as perfect as the flowers picked off Amanda’s mouldy dress.