It is not often in the theatre that a production lingers in the mind long after the final curtain but this is certainly the case with John Tiffany’s superb revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie (Duke of York’s Theatre), which was a highlight of last year Edinburgh International Festival and which I chose as the best play of 2016 in my annual theatre round-up.
The place is St. Louis, the year 1927, and while matriarch Amanda Wingfield desperately struggles to provide her vulnerable daughter Laura with a ‘gentleman caller’ her son Tom dreams of escape from his dead-end warehouse job in a shoe factory.
This stylised evocative production of a drama often described as a ‘memory play’ takes this ideas seriously, not as an excuse for misty nostalgia, but as a fierce, involving and lyrical work, giving full weight to the historical setting – a shabby Sr. Louis apartment towards the end of the deepest economic recession in modern history. The play itself is distinctly autobiographical and features characters based on Williams’ own family including his fragile sister Rose.
Tiffany manages to get right to the heart of the drama of a family struggling to survive on hopes and dreams and, while it has a simple elegance, the relationships feel richly textured and the piece is packed with intense psychological detail. Designer Bob Crowley’s staging features floating platforms, menacing black pools, fire escape ladders stretching to infinity and even a delightful period gramophone, all of which heighten the reality of the piece, while Nico Muhly’s twinkling music accentuates the mood of delicate magic.
The great American actress Cherry Jones, best known as President Taylor on television makes an overdue and spellbinding West End debut as Amanda Wingfield, a faded Southern belle, abandoned by her husband, who clings to the past-when she was blesses with money and magnificent powers of attraction – and agonising ambitions for her family, yet fearful of the darkness that surrounds them. In place of conventional portrayal of fluttering, mentally fragile individualism, she portrays a women trained by charm, yet made of steel, carrying the whole weight of American history on her shoulders, fighting for her frail daughter’s future with every weapon she has to hand.
Michael Esper brings a mix of shadowy detachment and fey sensitivity to the role of Tom, the narrator of the piece and dutiful son, frustrated by his job, who longs to be a poet. Katie O’Flynn is a real revelation as Laura, capturing the fragility of this limping (she has previously suffered from Polio), shy young women with an inferiority complex that has isolated her from the outside world. Brian J Smith is excellent as the eagerly expected gentleman caller, an emissary from the real world that the others have left behind.
This finely balanced five-star production makes the play – whose title is taken from Laura’s collection of glass animals which allows her to escape the awkwardness of her scheduled life – seem as fresh and affecting today as when it was first staged and provides a truly rich and rewarding evening in the theatre.
The Glass Menagerie
Showing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April 2017Last modified: February 13, 2017