Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by John Tiffany
Performed at The Duke of York’s Theatre in February 2017
Rating: *** 1/2
Following a critically acclaimed run on both Broadway and the Edinburgh International Festival, Tony Award winning director John Tiffany revives his production of The Glass Menagerie, one of Tennessee Williams most revered plays. Known widely as Williams’ “memory play” for both its semi-autobiographical and thematic elements, we are taken on a journey back to 1930s St. Louis where we meet a family on the brink of a breakdown.
Cherry Jones’ portrayal of desperate and domineering mother Amanda Wingfield was the standout performance of the show. Jones flitted with ease between Southern Belle of yesteryear and a neurotic mother set upon attaining an elusive “gentleman caller” to woo and wed her daughter. Kate O’Flynn’s portrayal of Laura, the daughter destined for spinsterhood, was also of note as she played the role with a subtlety that some actresses lack when taking on this specific part. O’Flynn played Laura with a gentle fragility that did not focus on her physical impediment, but more her painful shyness and yearning for the affection of old high school crush Jim O’Conner (Brian J. Smith). Smith reprised his role as the gentleman caller having previously played the part on Broadway. Jim served as an “emissary” of reality in a play in which its characters cling onto idealised hopes and dreams.
The narrator-come-character Tom played by Michael Esper (recent star of Lazarus) captured a self-awareness that is a necessary trait of this troubled protagonist. There were moments throughout where Esper as Tom broke the fourth wall and brought to the audience’s attention that the world before them is an illusion of truth, a theatrical presentation. Strong directorial touches that alluded to this illusion were peppered throughout, with a particularly wonderful moment where Laura is magically conjured out of the back of the sofa by Tom.
Whilst this production proved a solid ensemble piece, in my opinion Esper’s interpretation of Tom lacked depth. Tom is a conflicted character torn between the love he has for his sister and the yearning to escape his monotonous life in St. Louis. Esper’s performance did not dichotomise these conflicting wants enough and I did not see or feel the anguish or torment that Tom, or indeed Williams’ felt when he himself fled the family home. It is widely documented that The Glass Menagerie is a semi-autobiographical play that explores Williams’ own guilt at abandoning his family, and subsequently his ailing sister Rose, to pursue his creative dreams.
Another aspect of the piece that left me underwhelmed was the movement sequences that transitioned scenes. I am not sure whether it was Steven Hoggett’s choreography or the actors not fully immersing themselves in the fluidity of the movement, but there were moments when the abstract sequences did not work. O’Flynn’s Laura, whilst I appreciate is not a graceful character, moved in ways that felt clunky and awkward, with her sequences lacking purpose and failing to drive the plot or themes forward.
As someone who has focused their academic study on Tennessee Williams oeuvre, perhaps I am being overly critical of this production. The direction was impressive and Jones’ Amanda was near enough perfection. O’Flynn’s performance also proved a welcome change from the often irritating and feeble portrayals of the character of Laura. My main critique is the abstract movement sequences that felt out of place and jarring. Williams play whilst it explores illusion and has scope for the fantastical, is ultimately a naturalistic piece in a metaphorical and make-believe world, but this world itself is an allusion to truth, and allusion to Williams’ own reality.
Written by Megan Fellows
This review was featured on the Cheap Theatre Tickets website.