Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Giles Croft
Reviewer: Dave Smith
The Glass Menagerie isn’t just the play that first established the reputation of Tennessee Williams, it’s also his most overtly autobiographical work.
Told from the point of view of aspiring poet Tom Wingfield (Tom was Williams’ given name), it centres on his attempts to escape both a humdrum job in a shoe warehouse and the demands of his overbearing mother Amanda, a faded Southern belle, and her obsession with finding a ‘gentleman caller’ for Tom’s frail, dysfunctional and cripplingly shy sister Laura (Tennessee Williams’ own sister Rose was sickly and with a mental illness – ultimately diagnosed as schizophrenia – which would eventually result in a botched lobotomy). The three have long since been abandoned by Tom’s father, and although originally from the Mississippi Delta, now find themselves struggling to survive in a St Louis tenement block.
When Tom introduces Jim, an acquaintance from work, to Laura, he does so without knowing that Jim was the boy that Laura had admired from afar at school. As it happens, Jim also has a secret, and what promises briefly to be the spark that might bring Laura out of her shell, instead proves to be the catalyst that tears what’s left of the family apart.
Williams’ plays are not easy to get right, especially for a UK audience – get the accents wrong and overplay the agonised Southern melodrama that was his forte even just a touch and it can all too easily slip into cliché. Get it right, however, and his work packs an emotional punch equalled by few other 20th Century playwrights.
Giles Croft’s production walks this fine line gingerly at times, but in the end just about comes out ahead. The first half is almost entirely centred on Amanda and the restrictive effect her attempts at controlling the household have on her resentful (Tom) and cowed (Laura) children. For that to work, you need a strong central performance that makes sense out of her children’s reactions to her behaviour. Unfortunately, Susannah Harker’s accent veers too frequently into the parodic, making her more of a childlike, attention seeking and even pathetic character than the ‘dominant matriarch’ the programme notes suggest this production was aiming for. That makes for an unconvincing first act.
The play really takes off in the second act as Jim arrives for supper, Amanda goes into hostess overdrive and Laura takes centre stage. The long scene between Laura and Jim, in particular, is handled superbly, with Amy Trigg the stand-out member of the cast, reflecting Laura’s ultimately heartbreaking emotional journey beautifully. Daniel Donsky is also strong as the kindly, brashly confident and almost criminally naïve Jim.
As Tom, Chris New delivers (if memory serves) a pretty good Tennessee Williams impression. His narratives from the metal fire escapes that form the dominant part of Tim Meacock’s cleverly designed set (based on very detailed research into where the Williams family lived) and which serve as his escape route from a suffocating home life, succeed in putting space and time between him and the action playing out in front of us.
It’s well short of being perfect, but there’s enough in this production to make it well worth seeing. If you’re new to the work of Tennessee Williams, it may not convert you, but should encourage you to explore further.
Runs until 26 March 2016 |