Directed by John Tiffany (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the Tony nominated and critically acclaimed play finally makes its transfer from Broadway to London’s West End. One of Tennessee William’s first breakthrough plays, The Glass Menagerie is loosely autobiographical and follows a somewhat dysfunctional family living in St Louis in the late 30s.
Playing our frustrated narrator Tom is Michael Esper, a warehouse worker by day, wannabe writer by night and sole breadwinner of the Wingfield family. Broadway icon Cherry Jones plays overbearing matriarch Amanda Wingfield, a former Southern Belle whose husband falls in love with ‘long distance’, leaving the family behind before the events of the play. Rounding off the trinity of the Mother, the Son and the Crippled Girl is Kate O’ Flynn as Laura, Tom’s fragile, shy sister suffering the aftereffects of a childhood ailment.
The Glass Menagerie is not a happy play. Cherry Jones is an absolute tour de force, portraying an Amanda that’s simultaneously terrifying in her determination, and one whose actions are also completely understandable. In theatre’s long history of domineering mothers, Amanda Wingfield still remains one of the greatest ones. As a single mother whose dreams of living in a big house with servants are dashed, she pins all her hopes on her two children, worming her way into every aspect of their lives.
Not that she doesn’t need to, considering that Laura’s inferiority complex causes her to drop out of both high school and college, leaving her aimless and spending her days playing old records and fawning over her collection of glass animals, and Tom’s frustration at his obligations to his family and stagnant life, driving him to nightly visits to the movies, with a strong side of drinks. These only serve to spur Amanda to push her children even harder, accusing Tom of being selfish while attempting to recoup what she can of Laura’s failures by finding her a suitable husband, a solution that would be the answer to most of the family’s problems. As much as Amanda is villainized in the first half of the play, her character is quickly fleshed out as a woman who’s grown tough over her years of suffering, a role that Jones completely embodies and draws sympathy for her obsessive nature, much like Mama Rose in Gypsy.
Director Tiffany may have moved on from Harry Potter, but still manages to add an air of enchantment to this production. He adroitly maneuveurs his way around the wordy monologues in the script and allows for the poetry to really come true, particularly for both Cherry Jones and Michael Esper, the latter of whom manages to evoke both frustration at his lack of filial piety and understanding at his desire for more from life. The Glass Menagerie has aged surprisingly well, particularly with regard to its themes of disillusionment and a kind of fear of leading a regretful life.
Tiffany also works a kind of magic into the romance between Laura and gentleman caller Jim O’Connor (a charming and likable Brian J. Smith) in the second act, building it up so well that the eventual breakdown strikes at the emotional chords even harder than it should, despite the creeping dread that failure is just around the corner. This can also be attributed to Kate O’Flynn’s performance, transforming cautiously from a girl so caught up in her own world to a momentarily joyous, complete person fulfilling her fantasy of actually being with her girlhood crush before it all comes crashing down again with a dull thud.
All the drama and action is held up and completed with Nico Muhly’s delicate and poignant piano driven score, accentuating the dramatic moments and giving monologues the extra edge required to really swell with emotion. Bob Crowley’s set design consists hexagonal platforms tessellating off each other as the rooms in the house, with a seemingly endless stairway going both up and down behind it, all of which exist within a black, reflective pool of water, bringing to mind the idea of an isolated island, and emphasising the issues of loneliness and intensifying the family’s abandonment by all the men it comes into contact with.
The Glass Menagerie is a production that is the very definition of a good West End play, with a fantastic cast, accomplished direction and great visuals and sound design to match. It’s the kind of play that you’ll marvel at how well constructed it is, yet completely buy into its poetry, and break your heart like shattering glass in its denouement. Even though the family drama has been done to death, John Tiffany gives it life once again, and this is a solid play that re-establishes Tennessee Williams as one of the greatest playwrights of his generation.
The Glass Menagerie plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London till 29 April 2017. Tickets available from ATG
Photo Credit: Johann Persson