Benet Catty Productions

The Glass Menagerie (WE 2017)

Feb 17, 2017

Duke of York's

"I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion" says Tom in the opening moments of The Glass Menagerie. Seven decades on from the play's 1944 debut we now know how true this is. Tom was Tennessee Williams' real first name; the play is about him, his mother and his sister: the first of his many plays to explore the madness that would afflict his sister and the fear of madness that haunted him.

This new production was a hit on Broadway three years ago and comes to London via a similarly acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Festival last summer. Three of the four actors are from the original production, including multi award-winning Cherry Jones - a big star in America but here best known for playing the first female President in the TV thriller 24, in which one of her dedications to her office was to allow terrorists to cut off one of her husband's fingers.

The story, like the family at its centre and the ornament of its title, is a delicate one. Matriarch Amanda Wingfield treats her children with the kind of over-caution one might exercise with rebellious teenagers. Her daughter Laura is a chronically shy part-crippled young woman as delicate as the glass animals that she holds so dear. Amanda is determined to prepare Laura for the day when she'll be able to entertain a "Gentleman Caller", a day which finally comes when Tom, Amanda's son (and our narrator), brings a colleague from work to meet his sister. The Gentleman Caller, as far as we can tell, lives in the real world; the revelation of this proves to be significant, as none of the family do. Amanda flees into memories of her long-gone alcoholic ex-husband, Laura escapes into her memories of childhood and loneliness; Tom escapes to the movies (or so he claims). The glass menagerie is a metaphor for the family who owns it. Both end the same way.

It's a play which is revived every decade or so in London. In 1995 Zoe Wanamaker lead a striking Sam Mendes production in which the Gentleman Caller entered via a long ominous walkway that ran along the front of the circle, as if to emphasise the distance of the family from the world beyond. Rupert Goold also directed an uncharacteristically un-showy production starring Jessica Lange ten years ago.

Here the director is John Tiffany, acclaimed for the musical Once and enriched for the rest of his natural life (and probably beyond) by his production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, reviewed here last summer and likely to run until my unborn children are long dead. The Glass Menagerie is his favourite play.

He invests it with a style and intimacy absent from the last two London productions. The kitchen and living room areas are both tiny, suspended over a mirror and surrounded only by darkness and a set of New York walkways that wind up into the sky in a creepy perspective provided by the always-brilliant designer Bob Crowley.

There's a recurring underscore, inspired by the stage directions, composed by Nico Muhly in a style which echoes Craig Armstrong. And there's a subtle lacing of mime and movement provided by Steven Hoggett which helps to keep the play heightened and away from naturalism (as the author specified) but has the effect of making some moments look - at least to my eyes - a touch undergraduate.

Aside from Tiffany's presentational touches, his most valuable contribution is to keep the tone surprisingly light. It's frequently a witty evening and the sadness that lies beneath the central family is kept as an underpinning rather than an overshadowing. Consequently, in the riveting long scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller in the second act, when a playful dance leads to the breaking of one of the ornaments in her glass menagerie, the audience's long rapt silence gives way to an audible gasp. It's an upsetting moment towards the end of a touching scene in which we've come to really care for this frail young woman (beautifully played by Kate O'Flynn) whose real life inspiration, Williams' sister, would ultimately be lobotomised.

"In these trying times we live in, all we have to cling to is each other" says Amanda at one point. A family, like a country, has to hold together or it will break. That's a thought that resonates in 2017 every bit as much as it would have done in the play's 1930s setting. Families, Williams suggests, are like glass: transparent to each other, beautiful, treasured, and easily destroyed.

Like the play's titular ornament, The Glass Menagerie needs to be handled with care. John Tiffany and his cast do this wonderfully, revealing the play's beautiful but precious intricacies.

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