The Glass Menagerie – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Tennessee Williams

Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Deft touches are woven in with the more powerful straight shots in Femi Elufowoju Jr’s cracking version of the Tennessee Williams old favourite.

Williams’ original down-on-their-luck family are in this version African Americans, a shift that feels like it adds a level of grit and poignancy an all-white affair lacks. We see the mother with panicked ambitions for her two children, the shy older sister with health problems and the son who puts his life on hold to support the family in place of his runaway father. A gentleman caller comes to dinner, invited (without realising it) to court the sister and hopefully solve the family’s problems by marrying her someday.

The whole thing is a tinderbox waiting for a spark from the very beginning. Packed with tension, some enjoyable and some truly uncomfortable, it flares repeatedly up before lulling the audience into false feelings of security. The relatableness of it all is terrifying – family dynamics are presented as a universal truth with the backdrop of pre-war St. Louis there to offset it. Tom’s anger and frustration at his situation, the sorrow we feel for his sister Laura and cringing desperation for his mother are real – Elufowoju Jr’s vision for this (and the performers) has generated some extremely engaging characters. As the narrator says, it’s a play about memories and these can sometimes be distorted – maybe the extreme elements of the characters and the gusto with which the performers attack them are what really make them stand out.

With the addition of the African American family element, the play is opened into a piece of black history. A lot of the nuance may possibly be lost on an audience not tuned in, or unfamiliar with this particular area of experience – but no one can fail to note the weight it gives to discussions of others in societies, or interpret the differences left unsaid (such as when the white Irish Catholic Jim O’Connor comes to the door as a dinner guest / potential suitor for Laura). It feels elegant, confidently and intelligently done for both an audience already educated in black history, and those just beginning.

Michael Abubakar as the narrator and as Tom is a ball of energy, tightly wound and just waiting to get let loose into the world. Lesley Ewen as the mother shows us all what a frantic, nervous and lost parent can feel like. In her professional debut Naima Swaleh as Laura was vulnerable, tender and felt a very assured performer.

Lit by Arnim Friess and in a detailed, gorgeous set of a run-down apartment by Rebecca Brower, this play shows on multiple levels what class, memory, money and expectations can do to a family. Even in a fresh version from this crew, it feels a classic.

Runs until 13 July 2019 | Image: Idil Sukan

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Classic and Fresh

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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