"John Tiffany’s stunning revival. A vision of love, a strange dream of America, falling through the night. Extraordinary"Time Out
"A heart-wrenching production. Prepare to be blown away"Radio Times
"Beautifully played. Cherry Jones gives a revelatory performance"The Financial Times
"John Tiffany’s production casts a shiver-inducing spell"Daily Telegraph
A domineering mother. A daughter lost in a world of her own. A son desperate to leave. Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is theatrical magic on the West End.
Former Southern Belle Amanda Wingfield, played by Tony Award-winning Broadway star Cherry Jones, enlists the help of son Tom (Michael Esper) to find a husband for her fragile daughter Laura (Kate O’Flynn). But will the long-awaited ‘gentleman caller’ (Brian J. Smith) fulfil or shatter the family’s delicate dreams?
A universally acclaimed creative team bring 1930s’ St Louis stylishly to life. With movement by Olivier Award-winning Steven Hoggett, set and costume design by multi Tony Award-winner Bob Crowley, lighting design by multi Tony Award-winner Natasha Katz, sound design from Olivier and Tony Award-winning Paul Arditti, music by celebrated composer Nico Muhly and casting by Jim Carnahan CSA, this is a stunning production of Tennessee Williams’ heart-breaking classic.
“I am satisfied – I see, dance, laugh, sing”, runs one typically euphoric line in Walt Whitman’s America-defining, pioneering poem “Song of Myself” (1855). You could, by contrast, describe The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’s exquisitely lyrical breakthrough masterpiece of 1945, as a “Song of the Wounded Self”. Its young protagonist Tom, a portrait of the struggling artist as a restless, cinema-fixated St Louis warehouse-worker, yearns for a Whitmanesque liberty and sensory plenitude, but he’s stymied by his wage-slave duty of care to his mother and sister. Although his surname (Wingfield) conjures soaring possibility and natural bounty, he’s climbing the walls of an apartment that’s now the coffin of his dreams. Or rather, was: this is a “memory play”. In casting off the cares of adulthood and striking out on his own, he has managed to cut free – but he’s doomed to look back at what was forsaken, haunted by his Thirties youth. Even if Williams had written nothing else, I suspect the play would have endured. Although it’s often revived, John Tiffany’s production (originally seen on Broadway in 2013, briefly last summer in Edinburgh, now at the grand old Duke of York’s for two months or so) casts a greater, more shiver-making spell than most. “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket,” Michael Esper’s scene-setting Tom tells us, and Tiffany (lest we need reminding, the director of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) has a few of his own. A star-field of lights magically appears at times in the oily, reflective lagoon with which designer Bob Crowley surrounds the hexagonal pontoons of living-room floor. Looming over it all is a black-as-night void, with metallic fire-escape stairs telescoping upwards. Kate O’Flynn’s Laura, Tom’s sister, lame-footed and crippled by shyness, unforgettably makes her entrance through the middle of the sofa, as if hauled out from the recesses of his mind. But this isn’t a “look-at-me” affair, it’s more “listen-to-this” – let the melancholy strains of piano and violin seep in; savour the domestic subtleties. It has been said before (by me included) that American stage-star Cherry Jones, making her West End debut, is perfect as Amanda, the former southern belle who frets night and day about her troublesome two, clinging to memories of the “gentlemen callers” who once courted her and hoping that some special male – procured by Tom – will be charmed enough by Laura to sweep her off her feet. Williams’s description of Amanda alludes to “endurance and a kind of heroism” as much as risible neurosis – qualities Jones effortlessly elicits. Just as she steels herself to make humiliating cold-calls to the lapsing subscribers of a journal “for matrons”, so she wears an expression of warm good cheer like a mask. It’s her keeping up of decorous appearances that breaks your heart. Hers is a wonderfully animated performance too: she holds court at the dinner table like some visionary political orator, later tight-rope walks across the carpet in histrionic excitement, arms flailing. You sense that she’s as confined as the son she goads and nags. Kate O’Flynn remains an understated, introverted marvel as Laura – with eyes initially only for her miniature glass animals and the wind-up gramophone, gulping her words in her gaucheness, looking as if she wished the ground she clumped on would swallow her up. The late-evening brief encounter between her and Brian J Smith as Jim, her long-time high-school crush, begins on a note of tender tragi-comedy, moves into a register of romance as glorious as anything you’ll see in La La Land and ends up with all hopes shattered: as if an atom bomb had been detonated here, the world never the same again from that moment on.
What does ‘make America great again’ mean, exactly? Because if it involved a return to the US’s mid-twentieth century dramatic zenith – when its playwrights were easily the best the world – I could actually probably get on board. Tennessee Williams’s breakthrough 1945 drama ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is the original ‘memory play’, in which jaded protagonist Tom (Michael Esper) wistfully recalls his long gone family: his formidable mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) and his frail, damaged sister Laura (Kate O’Flynn). John Tiffany’s production – finally making it to London after runs in New York and Edinburgh – is deceptively simply staged, but also infused with all the magic that the Harry Potter director and team can bring to bear. The action - with its movement stylised by regular Tiffany collaborator Steven Hoggett - takes place in an inky void, a couple of rooms in a St Louis tenement surrounded by obsidian pools of water (by designer Bob Crowley) and haunted by Nico Muhly's eerily beautiful score. They blend to give it an extraordinary, dreamlike feel, halfway between hope and terror, innocence and despair, nostalgia and obliteration. The ambience reminds me somewhat of the David Lynch's heady ‘Twin Peaks’. But it is more than just a box of director's tricks. Esper in exemplary as narrator Tom: existing in both the past (the play is set in 1939) and the present, he is wracked with guilt and irritation at the family he abandoned. His most complicated feelings are reserved for the overwhelming Amanda – far from one of Williams’s usual frail cracked Southern belles, Broadway star Jones virtuosically plays her as a loving woman whose nurturing instincts have gone too far, suffocating her children. And sole Brit O'Flynn is fantastic as Laura, picking out the most delicate of paths between tragedy and comedy as her crippling shyness threatens to disperse when a brief, beautiful chance of escape is proffered to her by Brian J Smith's unexpectedly charming Gentleman Caller. Many productions suggest she has no chance – Tiffany’s is generous enough to show us a vision of another world where she might have been happy. And that’s the key: other productions of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ tend to be sour or cynical, but for all its (literal) darkness, Tiffany’s absolutely isn't. It is a vision of love, guttering in the void; a strange dream of America, falling through the night.
John Tiffany directed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and judging by his revival of Tennessee Williams’ breakthrough drama, he certainly knows how to cast a spell. This staging (seen in New York in 2013, then at last year’s Edinburgh Festival) is as delicately wrought as one of Laura’s glass animals and, when it reaches breaking point, quite shattering. Beautifully played, it has at its centre a revelatory performance from Cherry Jones. The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play”, in which writer Tom replays the agonising breakdown in his family that has haunted him down the years: a sister damaged beyond repair; a family abandoned. But it is also much more subtle than that. It features memories Tom can’t possibly have — scenes between other characters at which he is not present. It is laced with recollections: the mother Amanda recalling the lost golden age of her youth; the sister Laura reliving the agony of “clumping” into the school hall with a brace on her leg — something Jim, to whom she is confessing, didn’t notice at all. Memories sustain, memories destroy, they can be fickle and false. And, like play texts, they lie latent until disturbed, and shift and change with each new iteration. Tiffany’s staging is brilliantly alive to this ambivalence. On Bob Crowley’s set, the characters seem suspended in limbo (as they are by memory), reliving the crucial period on domestic interiors perched between a shimmering pool of water and a fire escape that reaches to the clouds. But the dreamlike atmosphere, sustained by Nico Muhly’s haunting score, is counterbalanced by the harsh social realities that beset the characters. Tom’s guilt colours his memory (Michael Esper quietly shifting between his present and younger self), but we see something different: characters strung between dreams and the tough, crushing prospects of the 1930s. Nowhere is this more piercingly shown than in Jones’s Amanda. She’s overbearing, never stops talking — but this is no monster. Jones shows us the panic that drives her: this is a woman who knows hardship. Her perplexed, clumsy desperation to save her children is immensely poignant. And we end up hoping with her: the scene between Brian J Smith’s genial “gentleman caller” Jim and Kate O’Flynn’s painfully awkward Laura, is so tenderly developed that you believe, for a moment, that this time it will work out and that the future — from which we view the memory — will be different.