The Glass Menagerie review: Tennessee Williams’ compassion and steel radiates from a heart-wrenching production ★★★★★

Prepare to be blown away by this near-perfect staging of a sometimes overlooked American classic says Ben Dowell

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Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play The Glass Menagerie is one of his best even if it’s not revived as often as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire.

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Director John Tiffany’s production has done a lot to renew interest in it and you can see why. Already a hit on Broadway and at Edinburgh, it’s now the turn of London theatre-goers to get a proper look at Cherry Jones, a Broadway star whom TV viewers will recall playing 24’s President Taylor but who hasn’t done much over here. She takes the central role of Amanda, the former southern belle who dreams of past glories while searching for a suitor for her emotionally crippled (and lame) daughter Laura. And what a performance she gives.

The story is narrated from the memories of her son Tom Wingfield, a young man (and aspiring writer) who has escaped his stifling home life and dead-end job in a St Louis warehouse, but now can’t help reflecting on his mother and the crippled sister he has left behind. It is presented, very self-consciously as a play; time slips easily in this world, and he drifts back to the stifling apartment he so longed to escape.

Amanda is one of a handful of Williams heroines whose glory has faded. But her social decline is not quite as tragic as, say, the drink-sodden despair of Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire; Jones succeeds in imbuing her performance with gusto as well as pathos, even as her desperation to hold on to her son drives her boy further and further away.

But she is no victim or sap. When she believes that Tom has at last found a suitable gentleman for Laura, she cracks into life. She has lost her early privileges, she has been abandoned by the father of her children, but she soldiers on.

In many ways the real star of the night is Kate O’Flynn who plays Laura with astonishing beauty and tenderness. The moment her character emerges (and finally disappears) through a sofa is dazzling; but the brilliance lies not in this ingenious moment of stagecraft, it rests in a deeply affecting performance of a role which Williams modelled closely and tenderly on the blighted life of his own sister, Rose, and whom the play is named after. Crippled by shyness, she finds emotional relief in a collection of glass animals that she imagines as real, sentient beings. 


 Book tickets for The Glass Menagerie from the Radio Times Box Office


As Tom – a version of Williams himself as a young man desperate to break free from his stifling family – Michael Esper portrays his fury and softness superbly.

Michael Esper as Tom, Cherry Jones as Amanda and Brian J Smith as the gentleman caller

Similarly, Brian J Smith is on good form as the kindly gentleman caller, who had a casual friendship with Laura at High School (she remembered it well; he had pretty much forgotten) and finds himself face-to-face with her at a dinner arranged by Tom, a colleague from the warehouse. His empathy and sadness at being unable to help a young girl whose spirit beguiles him but for whom he can do little, is one of the emotional hinges of this play and he pulls it off brilliantly.

This production also showcases the hot talent that is Tiffany, director of the ongoing smash hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Rarely do you see an ensemble so tightly woven, so in tune with each other.

His staging is simple; the drawing room is de-cluttered and a shared meal is imagined. This allows the visual focus to rest on the psychological symbolism of a large fire escape, which towers outside the room and seems to reach to the heavens.

I also liked the use of a dark pool of water that surrounds the stage, reflecting its world and the stars. Laura stares into it in one lovely moment and it has a crescent moon emerging from it; this seems to symbolise both a darkness and a kind of yearning, as does the fact that the moon looks at times like the dorsal fin of a shark.

Williams was acutely sensitive to his family’s woes, but he was also deeply aware of the dangers behind the fantasy. Throughout the night, it is this hard edge of realism that frequently breaks the dreamlike delusions and gives this mesmerising production its depth and unforgettable emotional punch. Top drawer stuff.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until April 29


 Book tickets for The Glass Menagerie from the Radio Times Box Office


 Radio Times Box office special offer:

The Glass Menagerie plus 2-course pre-theatre dinner at the The Ivy Market Grill

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