Saturday, 4 February 2017

Review The Glass Menagerie

A  fine revival sheds fresh light  for reviewer Francis Beckett on the fragile mother and daughter relationship in a landmark 20th century American play.

The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams 

Lost Horizon

Tennessee Williams's classic memory play The Glass Menagerie is, as director John Tiffany says,  "pure heartache and pure craft".

Technically it is a perfect play, minutely observed, occurring in one claustrophobic space. Small things, that are to make a difference at the end, are unobtrusively seeded at the start: the glass animal collection; the charm of the man we are to meet in the second act. The plot hangs together. There are no moments which make you think afterwards "I don't quite believe that".

In 1930s' St Louis, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, lives former southern belle Amanda, deserted years ago by her drunken husband. Living with her are her two adult children: Tom, who works in a local warehouse and hates it, but cannot leave because the family depends on the small income he earns; and Laura, the disabled and chronically shy daughter.

Amanda knows that the only way to secure her daughter's future in a society which does not value women, especially shy women with ungainly legs, is to make sure she is well married. When Tom finally agrees to invite a workmate home, it seems to Amanda that her prayers have been answered.

She works on the project of getting her daughter married with all the dedication, unselfishness and blind obsessiveness that Jane Austen's Mrs Bennett puts into the same project. In fact, Mrs Bennett, transferred to another century and another continent, would have been very like Amanda. (I mean that as a compliment, as I happen to think Mrs Bennett has been traduced by most people who have written about her, including her creator.)

And it is the actor playing Amanda upon whom this play hinges. If she convinces, so will the play. Cherry Jones convinces in spades. You can see just what drives her; what it has taken to bring up two children by herself in that society, and how it has drained her; why she is what she is; and why she is slowly, but surely, driving her beloved children away. Jones puts in a truly magnificent performance.

She provides several wonderful moments, but two of them stick in my mind. One is when she learns there is to be a gentleman caller whom she can hope her daughter may charm, and she suddenly sees her dismal, cheaply-furnisheed apartment through the eyes she expects him to bring to it. The other is when the gentleman caller arrives, and she cannot stop talking to him - or selling her duaghter's charms as though she is selling soap flakes.

Amanda is based on the playwright's mother and Tom on the playwright himself. Michael Esper puts in a fine performance as Tom, dreams clashing with duty, and Kate O'Flynn is heartbreakingly good as the shy, crippled Laura. The scene where her mother insists she answers the door to the gentleman caller shows us in just a few seconds the ways in which we kill the spirit of those we love the most: both women are slowly stifling each other.

Brian J Smith, the gentleman caller, is also a pure delight: an amusing, popular, handsome, thoroughly decent young man, wishing his fellow human beings nothing but good, knowing in the end, to his utter distress, he has only done harm.

John Tiffany's direction of the four-strong cast is neatly understated, but I was not at all sure about designer Bob Crowley's set. There was a kind of tower which, I think, was supposed to signify higher landings in a high-rise apartment block, but only suggested to me a castle in Fairyland; and there was also a puzzling dumb show.

But this is a small criticism. Tiffany's The Glass Menagerie is a wholly convincing, moving, sensitive production of one of the great plays of the 20th century.I urge you to go and see it. A green light from me.

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