“The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of shattered rainbow.”
Continuing the Young Vic’s 40th anniversary season, a new revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie arrives in the main house directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins and featuring an exciting cast. One of his earliest plays and consequently one of his most autobiographical, it is set in 1937 in the city of St Louis, Missouri where the Wingfields live close to the poverty line. Mother Amanda dreams of her girlhood in the Deep South and the husband that left her, son Tom dreams of leaving his full factory job and pursuing his dreams and fragile daughter Laura is happy as she is in her own quiet world but as her mother is determined to secure a better future for the children, she pushes Tom to finding a suitable ‘gentleman caller’ for his sister with devastating effects.
Opening with an introduction to the world of memory plays, for this is what The Glass Menagerie is, narrated by an older version of Tom, the action starts with a gorgeous little coup de theatre revealing the Wingfields’ apartment on the corner stage. As Dario Marianell’s music is played live on stage by Eliza McCarthy on the piano and Simon Allen on a range of instruments including music boxes and a table of water glasses which provide a beautifully evocative soundscape: Allen also provides live sound effects which are neatly done, especially on the staircase and James Farncombe’s evocative lighting shines across the stage, the play is atmospherically set somewhere between memory and reality, helped by the levels built into Jeremy Herbert’s set design.
I have made no secret of my admiration for Deborah Findlay, I think she is one of our most under-rated actresses, equally at home in cutting modern pieces as she is costume dramas and she adds another dimension here as frustrated, uprooted and overbearing Southern belle Amanda. A beautifully layered performance, her wistful recollection of the jonquils from her youth is spine-tingling but it is paired with a practicality that makes you realise she knows her dreams are dreams and not reality and far from being overtly cruel, she is just unable to equip her children with the skills they need to survive this tough world and unaware of the effect she has on them.
Happy in her safe closeted world with her crystalline companions that form the titular collection, Sinéad Matthews excels as the painfully nervous Laura, terrified at the prospect of interactions with others as her mother so longs for, her lack of confidence exacerbated by her physical limitations and a verbal tic which is sensitively portrayed but there’s a grace to her too which tugs at the heartstrings. So during the beautifully done final scene in the living room as her gentleman caller begins to awaken the woman in her, whisking her around a makeshift dancefloor before returning her to reality, the emotional investment in this loner with whom Williams’ own sister is most closely identified results in nigh on perfection.
Kyle Soller as Jim, the man who comes to dinner, does well with a nice Matt Smith-like energy, tempering the shamelessness of his behaviour with a believable affability but it is Leo Bill who really impresses with a performance of great maturity and sensitivity. As the narrator of the story, of his memories, as well as an integral part, he plays the frustrations of a trapped repressed soul who is with his family in some respects but so far from them in others and the weight that he bears as a result of the decisions he has made haunts the speeches he makes to us. The connections between all the actors are substantial and incredibly strong given the show is still in preview and the voice work from all is good, everyone in tune with the easy rhythm of the playwright’s voice.
I have long been resigned to the fact that I have a different sense of humour to most theatrical audiences and it was the same here with plenty of laughs coming throughout, sometimes in the most random of places. I think it really does make a difference if you know the plot though as what may seem comic is imbued with a great sadness when one knows the truth. And indeed I think it was this weight of expectation that resulted in me being the only one in the group to wiping tears away at the end. I do maintain though that this show features some of Williams’ most beautiful writing, exploring the complex family dynamics of his own life through the Wingfields, the impact of personal decisions on others and the cost of escape: Tom’s final speech, from which the quote at the top is taken, slays me every single time.
With the introduction of reserved seating and proper reduced price previews, alongside its hip bar on The Cut, the team here on the South Bank is doing excellent work at improving the whole theatrical experience at their venue to match the exciting programming. And with this achingly beautiful production of a truly great play, I’d highly recommend a trip to the Young Vic.