The British professional theatre scene is riding high from awards season. Meaning, fans fortunate enough to visit the West End at the moment, will be happily overwhelmed for choice.
The dynamic performing arts hub currently offers an exciting range of brand new plays and musicals, elegant revivals, long – running blockbusters, and exceptional transfers from Broadway. Direct from the United States, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, is at The Duke of York’s Theatre in St. Martin’s Lane, for a strictly – limited season.
This particular production played The Great White Way in 2013, earning Tony nominations for John Tiffany (Best Director), Celia Keenan – Bolger (Best Featured Actress), and Cherry Jones (Best Actress). The New York City season was also noted for the Broadway stage debut of the film and television star, Zachary Quinto.
Jones repeats her role in London as Amanda Wingfield, as do Brian J. Smith (as The Gentleman Caller), and director, Tiffany. Joining them in this instance, Michael Esper plays Tom Wingfield, and Kate O’Flynn is Laura Wingfield.
Told over several days, this deceptively simple drama highlights one family’s struggle to make ends meet during The Great Depression. The mother, Amanda Wingfield, spruiks magazines subscriptions by phone, as her eldest, Tom, suffers trying career monotony in the basement stockroom of a shoe factory.
Meanwhile Laura, Amanda’s youngest adult child and Tom’s beloved sister, lives in a fantasy world. Spending each waking moment listening to worn – out phonograph records, or attending to a small glass collection, she is both awkward and shy. Crippled since birth with a limp, this physical defect has impacted her social interaction to such a degree, Laura barely leaves their cramped tenement walk – up.
The Glass Menagerie has a total running time of 160 minutes (including one twenty – minute interval), with act one covering the complex family dynamic between the three.
Amanda is strong and overbearing, yet worries constantly about her children. She is furious yet concerned when Laura, who was meant to be studying typing and shorthand at a costly business school, secretly dropped out.
With Amanda’s husband and the siblings’ father having long left the fold, Tom is regulated to the role of primary bread winner. Mother and son constantly fight. Further, Tom threatens to join the merchant marines, often drinks heavily, and spends every night until all hours going to the movies.
In the hope of securing a safe financial future for Laura, part one closes with Amanda begging Tom to find the young woman a beau. To her surprise and delight he does, and the second act details this set – up.
Originated by the legendary Laurette Taylor in 1944, well – known actresses that have since played this iconic stage role include Julie Harris, Judith Ivey, Jessica Lange, Maureen Stapleton and Jessica Tandy.
The Glass Menagerie has also been made into a motion picture, filmed four times in 1950 (with Gertrude Lawrence, Arthur Kennedy, Jane Wyman and Kirk Douglas), 1966 (with Shirley Booth, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Loden, and Pat Hingle), 1973 (with Katherine Hepburn, Sam Waterston, Joanna Miles, and Michael Moriarty), and 1987 (with Joanne Woodward, John Malcovich, Karen Allen, and James Naughton).
This popular work is regularly acted, with some creative teams more than flexing its template.
In 2016, Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre organised a production, that took the story’s memory play status, in an uniquely experimental direction. A video camera projected key sequences in real time and flashback, onto oversized screens placed either side of the set.
By capturing and highlighting characters’ feelings in extreme close – up, this process mimicked the quality and appearance of an early talking picture. Doing this, somehow transferred Tom’s fascination with ‘the movies’ to his own immediate family.
Last month, a new revival opened on Broadway. Starring Sally Field and Joe Mantello, that particular company cast Madison Ferris, an actress with cerebral palsy, as Laura.
Love or loathe Amanda Wingfield, it is one of the most sought – after and revered roles in American theatre. In an extended video interview about the part with New York City’s 92nd Street Y, Jones was more than aware of Amanda’s reputation as a monster.
Her own family upbringing was civil and loving. So initially, Jones thought that the character was freakish and abhorrent. It was only when she herself experienced personal tragedy, did the actress think that Wingfield was ‘remarkable’.
Free from big special effects or obvious tricks, the West End staging sneaks up, hooks, and draws viewers close.
An ethereal air hangs over the piece, as Tom introduces and remembers this snapshot turning point. But, similar to the female protagonist’s ‘truth’ in the film, Atonement, Tom’s telling is laced with guilt, regret and sadness. (It is believed that the narrative runs strong parallel to Williams’ own background growing – up, too.)
The lack of secondary props, reinforces the show’s dream – like state. Much like how StageArt’s Titanic: The Musical used a similar approach in Melbourne last year, here the cast mime certain bits and pieces, too. (Stephen Hoggett was in charge of movement).
Consisting of a folding screen, a dining room table, a telephone stand, and a chaise lounge, Bob Crowley’s spare set design is matched by his understated costuming choices.
Nico Muhly’s musical interludes between scenes are appropriate to the time frame, supported by Paul Arditti’s sound. Natasha Katz gives the play’s unobtrusive lighting cues, a particularly poignant touch. A candle lit during a power black – out, extinguishes itself at the story’s conclusion.
All four actors are faultless, allowing Williams’ words and Tiffany’s direction, to always breathe.
They share a level of comfort with each other that makes their combined performances relaxed, yet always spontaneous. Together, the cast present a heightened reality of life. Many of the play’s later moments, such as Amanda confronting Tom over his late nights out, or Laura learning that her gentleman caller is engaged to be married, are particularly heart – breaking.
The American Repertory Theater’s traditional, fresh yet respectful interpretation, will stay in your hearts and minds long after the final curtain call. Their take on The Glass Menagerie is a must – see experience for serious theatre lovers.