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The Glass Menagerie – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Reviewer: Duncan Riches

Writer: Tennessee Williams

Director: Atri Banerjee

A central pillar that wouldn’t look out of place in any of Manchester’s old warehouses. This supports a horizontal metal beam with the word ‘Paradise’ in large, unlit florescent letters. The lights dim, the cast enters, a lighter is opened. ‘Paradise’ brightens, the beam starts to turn. So begins the Royal Exchange Theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie.

Set in 1930s St Louis, The Glass Menagerie is described as “a memory play” in the opening prologue. This could be seen in many ways, the central family of the Wingfields being loosely based upon Tennessee William’s own. It may provide a taste of some of the memories he had growing up with his mother and sister, it could evoke memories in the audience of their own family, it could even stir times of disappointment, rejection, sadness and hope. All of these are covered beautifully in this American classic, wonderfully brought to life in this illuminating production.

The first thing to note is the design by Rosanna Vize, which initially seems very simple. The aforementioned pillar and beam supporting the large lettered ‘Paradise’ dominates the auditorium, reaching almost the full width. It’s revolutions provide a wonderful visual tempo for the play, matching the action below and providing continuous moving shadows. Four simple chairs are spread evenly, placed around what appear to be small speakers spread in a circle. Around these speakers the titular characters are placed – tiny figures making up a literal glass menagerie. This is one of the most wonderful things about this production; on the surface everything can seem simple and ordinary but the more you look the more fragile and delicate something can be.

The direction by Atri Banerjee is superb, really holding onto the core of what this play is about and developing it for a modern theatre. The generally naturalistic scenes are continuously interspersed with simple devices and staging, such as being at a dining table with no dining table and a conversation in the dark spoken over microphones. None of this feels alienating or out of place either and continuously drives the production, allowing us to invest deeply in the journey of the four characters.

Amanda is played expertly by Geraldine Somerville, bringing to life this matriarchal ex-Southern Belle with seriousness and play in equal measure. There were also hints of Hyacinth Bucket and Rose from Gypsy, making for a fabulous combination. Tom, the character based around Williams himself, is brought to life expertly by Joshua James. His ambition and dreams, and ultimate futility of them, can be felt in every word and action.

Rhiannon Clements portrays Laura perfectly with a fragility and innocence that is captivating to watch. A lot of the tragedy (and joy) revolves around her and this is felt throughout. Eloka Ivo struck a powerful and charming presence as Jim, the Gentleman Caller. On the edges of scenes throughout the first act, seeing him come alive the audience are instantly drawn to him. Ivo made us truly believe this could be the beginning of something new and exciting for the Wingfields.

All of this is accompanied by the seamless lighting designed by Lee Curran, powerful and joyful movement directed by Anthony Missen and the haunting and ever-present music and sound design by Giles Thomas. Sometimes these elements can be distracting in productions, but these all complimented and blended with the performance in a way that felt if you took even one away you would lose some of the feeling of the play.

The only slight downside to all of this was when the action did slow and become more natural it was a chance for the audience to lose focus and drift slightly, before being picked up again within a minute or so and brought back to the rich and fragile world of the play.

The whole experience feels like glass. It is beautiful and clear, yet this whole world could break at any minute. A cracking piece of theatre.

Runs until 8 October 2022

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A fragile paradise

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. 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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