The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. We know that because Tom, our narrator, tells us so, looming out of the darkness to disclose that the stage of London’s Duke of York’s Theatre is underlit to reflect the distance and gloom of the memories conjured up.
But there are times in John Tiffany’s riveting production when I wished there had been more light. It makes for a very bleak and somber evening.
That said, I was swept up in Tennessee Williams’ story and bowled along by its narrative. There are gut-wrenching performances from Cherry Jones as faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield and, even more so, by Kate O’Flynn as the emotionally and physically crippled Laura.
Tiffany’s acclaimed production is now in the West End and it’s about time too. It’s a great American drama, and a great Tennessee Williams play, filled with the sort of emotions, repressed or otherwise, that we rarely see in a domestically written piece.
Yes, it’s dark, and remains so throughout, but the story is so powerfully told, with a few tricks by Tiffany and his team to emphasise the ephemeral nature of one’s memories, that it makes for compelling theatre.
Jones does her level best to steal the entire show playing one of Williams’ great stereotypes. Amanda Wingfield, once Southern aristocracy, married recklessly for love and regretted it the rest of her life.
Now abandoned, disappointed and bitter, raising two children alone, she has become the ultimate overbearing, interfering, controlling mother who struggles to maintain standards despite living hand-to-mouth and in her fantasies.
She recalls golden memories from her youth when “gentlemen callers” would fight over her, her wonderfully honeyed Deep South drawl evoking a lost time, a Gone With The Wind era of servants, fine dresses, afternoon strolls and parasols.
But, with her waster of a husband gone, she yearns for a return to life and society by living vicariously through her kids.
Sadly Tom, who has dreams of being a writer, is trapped working a menial job in a factory while plotting escape via enlistment, and Laura..well, Laura will break your heart.
Kate O’Flynn dominates the Second Act with a performance of profound sadness. Laura, chronically shy and with a club foot, hides away at home unable to face the world.
Amanda dreams of gentlemen callers paying her attention but the truth is that Laura can’t bear to even open the door to a stranger. She is physically sick when forced to venture outside their shabby apartment and finds it impossible to talk to anyone other than her brother and mother.
Her life revolves around her menagerie of little glass animals, as fragile as she is, who momentarily come to life when held up to the light, but remain inanimate when left on a shelf.
Amanda persuades Tom to invite a friend home from work in a bid to manipulate an encounter for Laura. As it turns out he is someone from schooldays who the withdrawn young girl used to like.
Flynn’s thin, quiet voiced Laura oozes terror and insecurity as she clumps about, hiding behind a screen or sofa. She is so frightened of sitting down to dinner with the visitor that she passes out. Is there any hope for happiness amid this overwhelming tragedy?
The Glass Menagerie is dominated by the two women with the men, Michael Esper’s Tom and Brian J Smith, as “The Gentleman Caller” Jim, almost sidelined. Jim’s brief encounter with Laura will leave you transfixed and, ultimately, moved by its poignancy.
A visual and theatrical masterpiece. The Glass Menagerie runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until April 29.
The Glass Menagerie
Breathtaking in its poignancy, John Tiffany’s production of The Glass Menagerie is a masterpiece of story-telling. Dark, tragic & compelling with moving performances from Cherry Jones & Kate O’Flynn.